Maine mills face shortage of qualified recruits

The Verso Corp. paper mill in Bucksport as seen from the waters of the eastern channel of the Penobscot River in 2008.
The Verso Corp. paper mill in Bucksport as seen from the waters of the eastern channel of the Penobscot River in 2008. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 25, 2011, at 9:33 a.m.

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Recent news of job losses at paper mills across Maine — including 125 positions cut at Verso Paper’s Bucksport mill — may suggest to some that employment in the state’s pulp and paper industry is shrinking, not growing. And in some mills that is true.

But the average age of a paper mill worker in Maine is in the 50s. So even as mills throughout Maine face increased global competition, they also are bracing for a tidal wave of empty positions as those workers begin to retire after decades on the job.

Faced with an aging work force and few qualified replacements, Verso Paper is working with school officials in Bucksport and at Eastern Maine Community College to develop a degree program aimed at luring high school graduates back into the paper making business.

Verso officials estimated several years ago that more than 50 percent of their work force would begin retiring by 2015. While the recession may have pushed that date back somewhat, Verso spokesman Bill Cohen said the trend is clear.

“The [average] age is still really high across the whole industry and there has been a real shortage of trained workers,” Cohen said.

To address that shortage, Cohen and others from Verso have been working with town officials, representatives from RSU 25 and Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor on an associate degree and certification program designed specifically for the Bucksport mill.

“These are good-paying jobs with good benefits, even great benefits I would say,” Cohen said.

Details of the program are still being worked out, but it could involve both dual-enrollment programs between Bucksport High School and EMCC prior to graduation and then college classes offered in Bucksport.

Jim Boothby, superintendent of RSU 25, said the school system is interested in expanding the number of dual-enrollment programs for the benefit of all students. While Boothby hadn’t done any formal surveys, he suspects that some students would be very interested in a pulp and paper program.

Verso currently offers scholarships to students interested in pursuing an associate degree and certification through a generic pulp and paper program offered by Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. But Cohen said his interest grew in a Bucksport-specific program after talking with Bucksport Town Manager Roger Raymond, economic development director Dave Milan and Boothby.

Milan said this week that the town is looking into using available funds through the town’s tax increment financing accounts to help pay students’ tuition costs. The town has also contributed financially toward the curriculum development process.

Milan said the program, if successful, will benefit the town in two major ways. First, it will help ensure the town’s largest employer and taxpayer has a source of qualified workers. And secondly, it could help stem the out-migration of youth who would otherwise rather stay in the area.

“These students will be able to potentially walk right into a good job at the mill,” Milan said.

Back in October, Verso announced that it was mothballing one paper machine at the Bucksport mill and eliminating 125 jobs due to the high costs of running the aging machine, increased competition and low demand for the type of paper it produced.

Cohen said more than two-thirds of those positions were eliminated through voluntary severances. The remainder, however, were typically younger workers with fewer years on the job. So the layoffs took a toll both in terms of loss of institutional knowledge and younger workers more likely to stay with the mill, Cohen said.

Both Cohen and John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, acknowledged that the layoffs and similar news from other mills contribute to a perception among some in the public that Maine’s paper industry is dwindling.

Williams said reality is that Maine mills are producing as much paper as they ever have but with admittedly smaller work forces due to technology. But some mills are adding new positions while others are filling vacancies created by retirements.

Verso’s work with the Bucksport-area schools and EMCC is proof that there will be opportunities for people with the skills needed to work in today’s mills.

“They are all worried about having a work force for the future because they are all planning to be around for a long time,” Williams said.

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