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Paper Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Paper Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Workers in the paper industry make paper and paper products out of wood, recycled paper, or cloth and other fibrous materials. Although paper mills are found throughout the United States, more than half of the nation's paper and pulp production takes place in the southern states. Many plants specialize in a single step in the paper making process—making pulp from wood, for example. Other plants are involved in the entire process of transforming raw materials into finished paper products such as napkins or stationery.

The paper manufacturing industry generates approximately $170 billion in annual revenues and employs nearly 500,000 workers. About three-quarters of these workers have production jobs. Because the paper industry is highly automated, most production workers operate machines that do the processing.

After trees have been cut down and sawed into logs, the bark is sometimes removed and the logs are cut into chips right on the spot. More often, however, the logs are taken to a pulp mill, where barker operators feed the logs into machines called drum barkers that remove the bark.

There are two basic kinds of processes used to separate the pulp, or fibers, from other substances in the wood. One is a mechanical process that uses a spinning grindstone to separate the fibers. This process makes newsprint and other cheap papers. The other, and the most common, is a chemical process. In some cases, a combination of these processes is used.

In the chemical process, chippers run machines that chip the wood into small pieces. Digester operators supervise the next steps. The wood chips are placed in huge vats called digesters, mixed with chemicals, and heated. The pressure builds up in the digester and the fibers become separated from the other ingredients in the wood. Digester operators watch their instrument panels to maintain the proper cooking temperature and pressure. The wood fiber, or pulp, is then washed to remove any impurities.

The next step turns the pulp into paper. Beater engineers mix water, chemicals, and dye with the pulp in a large tank. The strength and color of the paper they produce depends on the ingredients they add and the length of time they beat them together. Beater engineers are skilled workers who operate the beating machinery and supervise other workers including color engineers, pulp testers, and coating mixers tenders. Refiner operators brush and cut the wood fibers. The pulp is still part of a mixture that is 99 percent water.

Since the paper industry is highly automated, most production workers tend machines that do the processing. (© Lester Lefkowitz/Corbis.)

Huge machines called fourdriniers are used to make the paper itself. Some of these machines are a hundred yards long. Paper machine operators are in charge of the paper making. Much of this process is automated. Paper machine operators have to watch control panels as well as supervise a number of less-skilled workers. In fourdriniers, the pulp and water mixture flows over a vibrating screen. The water drains through the screen, and the pulp fibers cling together, forming a thin sheet of wet paper. Presses squeeze out the excess water. In modern paper mills, many of these processes are controlled by special measuring instruments and computers. They can measure and adjust the paper's thickness as well as many of its other characteristics.

Back tenders use machinery to dry and finish the paper. They inspect it and make certain that it is wound properly onto huge rolls. With their helpers they may cut, weigh, and wrap the rolls of finished paper. Some plants also employ other workers to finish the paper that will be used in books, magazines, and other high-quality products. Supercalender operators, for example, run the rolls of paper through machines that give it a smooth, shiny finish. A paper sorter and counter inspects the finished paper.

In converting plants, the paper is made into finished products, ranging from paper plates and napkins to wallpaper and cardboard boxes. Many different kinds of workers are employed in these plants, depending on the product being made.

About one-fourth of the workers in the paper industry have maintenance, professional, technical, administrative, or clerical jobs. Professionals in the industry include process engineers and paper chemists. They have special training in making paper. Along with mechanical and chemical engineers, they help develop new products and new ways of making them. Foresters are also important in the paper industry. They often manage the growing and harvesting of trees and help paper companies buy wood. In addition, many other technicians, engineers, and managers are needed to produce paper and paper products.

Education and Training Requirements

There are no specific education requirements for production jobs in the paper industry, although many employers prefer to hire high school graduates. Workers usually get their training on the job, often by starting as the helpers of experienced workers. There are apprenticeship programs for some trade, or craft, workers. These programs last three to four years and combine formal instruction with on-the-job training. Some modern paper mills have programs that train each worker in four different crafts.

Technicians, engineers, and scientists need formal training—usually at the college level. This training can take from one to two years for some technicians and up to eight years for some chemists and engineers. A few universities have special programs that train chemists and engineers in paper technology.

Getting the Job

You can apply directly to pulp and paper mills for a job. Your state employment office and newspaper want ads may also provide you with information about job openings. Sometimes openings for production workers are posted on a sign outside the plant. Your school placement office may also be able to help you find a job in the paper industry.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Production workers usually advance within their specific field or department. For example, helpers in the paper making department who start by wrapping rolls of paper as they come off the machines may become back tenders after several years of experience. Some eventually move into jobs as skilled paper machine operators, who supervise many other workers. Production workers who get further training sometimes become technicians or production supervisors.

The number of jobs in the paper industry is not expected to change significantly through 2014. Openings are anticipated to replace workers who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons. The need for production workers is expected to decline as new laborsaving machines are installed. The demand for technicians, engineers, and scientists should remain steady. So, too, should the demand for highly skilled craft workers who can service the complex machinery used in modern paper mills.

Working Conditions

Working conditions vary according to the job. Digester operators and beater engineers, for example, are exposed to chemical odors. Some employees work in hot, humid, and noisy areas. However, modern ventilation systems and noise-deadening equipment help cut down on discomfort. Because most pulp and paper mills operate around the clock, shift work is common. Some companies rotate shifts. The workweek is generally thirty-five to forty hours long. Most production workers in the industry belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

American Forest and Paper Association
1111 Nineteenth St., NW, Ste. 800
Washington, DC 20036
(800) 878-8878

Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry
15 Technology Park South
Norcross, GA 30092
(770) 446-1400

United Paperworkers International Union
PO Box 1475
Nashville, TN 37202
(615) 834-8590

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings depend on the location of the work, the kind of mill, the specific job, and other factors. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations. Many companies also provide health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production