When the St. Croix Tissue mill received funding in March for an upgrade and new machinery purchase in Baileyville, the deal included a provision for a multi-year workforce training program here in Washington County.
Local workers will be provided with the skills and training they need to be considered as qualified candidates for the mill’s new job opportunities. The program is supporting a long-standing vision to revitalize our rural economy, where natural resources and jobs are so tightly interwoven.
The upgrade and expansion of the mill will preserve some 300 jobs at Woodland Pulp and add up to 80 new positions at St. Croix Tissue. In an economically-distressed community these are good and important jobs — some current employees already drive as much as two hours one way to get to work.
The expansion will also have a ripple effect, creating more jobs in the local economy. Eventually a fleet of 85 trucks will be taking tissue product from the mill, and there will be a need for contracting over-the-road, owner-operator truck drivers.
Part of the St. Croix owners’ confidence in retrofitting the paper mill with state-of-the-art equipment is the promise of a ready, local workforce. It’s well known that one of the multiple challenges that deter investment in rural, low-income communities like ours is the availability of a skilled and ready workforce.
The skilled worker shortage is a national problem that’s particularly acute in Washington County. In response, using the federal New Markets Tax Credit and Maine New Markets Capital Investment Program as part of financing the plant upgrade, the mill’s owners, along with CEI Capital Management (which oversaw the New Markets program allocations), added a community benefits agreement that will fund the multi-year workforce training program for the mill and other businesses in the region.
As the mill expands, the need to recruit ambitious and capable employees is critical. The new technology comes with new safety measures that require specialized skills. New hires will need to understand the metric system, advanced math and materials process flow calculations.
The equipment and technology to be installed will be state-of-the-art, controlled by computerized automation systems. This equipment will require motivated operators with the ability to understand logic and automated process controls systems. Operators will need to have the ability to learn these skill sets, required to operate the automated equipment.
The pulp mill will continue to require qualified, general maintenance mechanics as well as electrical and instrumentation technicians.
To assure the best possible opportunities for Washington County residents, the community benefit provision sets up a local WorkReady Maine program — we’re calling it WIN for short (WorkReady Initiative Network in Washington County).
Managed via a collaboration of multiple public and private entities, WIN will collaborate with existing partners to support the training of hundreds of individuals preparing for employment in Washington County, including the estimated 60-80 new workers at Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue.
Those not hired at the St. Croix facility will be linked with a Maine Department of Labor Career Center, as well as with education resources, including Axiom Education and Training Center and Washington County Community College, increasing not only the likelihood of success for St. Croix’s workers, but improving the training and employment opportunities for many of the area’s businesses and residents.
Many job candidates lack entry-level skills for a variety of reasons. WIN will focus on “soft skills” training — workplace communications, teamwork, and meeting employer expectations in terms of appearance and behavior. WIN participants will develop career plans and resumes that represent their abilities and ambitions. The program will enhance individual computer skills, as just about every job now requires computer applications.
WIN will combine Maine WorkReady “soft skills” training with the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate training system, the first of its kind in Maine. That credential is awarded to individuals who attain the occupational competencies preferred by local businesses. It is endorsed by professional associations across the country.
We were encouraged that representatives from Washington County’s various schools and businesses, as well as community leaders, attended the training program’s recent “kickoff” meeting, where we discussed how local businesses and organizations can get involved, support and benefit from the WIN program.
We are glad to have leadership support from Joanna Russell of the Aroostook-Washington Workforce Investment Board, Susan Corbett of Axiom Technologies, Robert Clark of the Northern Maine Development Commission, Charles Rudelitch of the Sunrise County Economic Council, and Washington County Community College President Joseph Cassidy.
The WIN in Washington County initiative will need participants — and the community’s endorsement — as we prepare our citizens for 21st century jobs. We are inviting community leaders to be a part of this vision for a stronger and healthier economy, and a workforce that is ready to make it happen.
Martin Richard is manager of St. Croix Tissue. Paul Jack is production manager at Woodland Pulp and Paper. Charlie Spies is CEO of CEI Capital Management.