Bridging the Talent Gap

We spoke with two industry leaders—one representing our largest manufacturer, and one representing a major supplier—about one of the pulp and paper industry’s biggest challenges: how to attract and retain tech-savvy graduates.


Mark Sutton is chairman and CEO of International Paper, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of fiber-based packaging, pulp, and paper. Sutton was named CEO in November of 2014, and chairman of IP’s Board of Directors in January, 2015.

Mark Sutton, chairman and CEO, International Paper.

Immediately prior to becoming CEO, he served as president and chief operating officer, with responsibility for leading the company’s global businesses. He has been with the company for his entire career. International Paper reported total global revenue in 2017 of more than US$22 billion. The company’s successful “LIFE (Life-changing Injury and Fatality Elimination)” safety program resulted in IP completing 2016 without a fatal injury, and is moving the company toward                                             its Vision 2020 goal of an injury-free workplace.

Sutton was named the 2018 TAPPI/PIMA Executive of the Year, which recognizes excellence in management and outstanding contributions to the industry. Paper360° spoke with him at IP’s Memphis, TN, headquarters.

P360°: In our Executive of the Year article, you say “The company is only ours for a while; we need to keep it strong for the next generation.” How is International Paper meeting the challenge to attract and retain the next generation of tech-talented employees?

Sutton: Our industry requires large numbers of people with strong technical, analytical, and problem solving skills. We have a great value proposition for young people: to work in an industry that transforms renewable resources into products that people depend on every day. We make packaging products that protect goods and enable worldwide commerce, papers that facilitate education and communication, and pulp for diapers and other personal hygiene that promote health and wellness.

Our team members produce innovative, recyclable products from renewable resources. We produce nearly 75 percent of our total mill energy from carbon-neutral biomass residuals, we return more than 90 percent of the water we use to the watershed, and our industry recovers about 90 percent of corrugated packaging and 67 percent of all paper products. Our industry is circular.

We also provide large numbers of high-paying jobs in our communities and, as a major employer, we engage with local school systems, technical colleges, and universities to support and enhance their STEM programs (see sidebar). We have also added resources to our onboarding process, and toward developing and mentoring employees in their first five years. Getting our new employees off to a strong start benefits them and the company.

The combination of these elements is having a positive impact on attracting and retaining tech-talented employees and in developing next-generation leaders at IP.

You joined IP as a young engineer and became its CEO. What would you say to young people entering our industry today who hope to achieve a leadership position?

I think in this industry, or in any organization, you have to find that you identify with a company’s purpose. We have a very simple, principle-based leadership model at IP. We expect our leaders to demonstrate “The Three C’s”: character—the ability to earn the trust of their team members; building capability throughout your career—that goes from the newest leader all the way through me; and being a catalyst—making the case for change and providing the spark. For example, look at the success of our safety program: we needed our leaders to step up into a place they’ve never been before, and they’re doing it.

The average age of an S&P 500 company has come down from probably 60 years old to much less than that—while International Paper, and others in our space, are 120 years old. But that’s because we aren’t the same company we were 100 years ago, or 40, or 20 years ago. We’ve innovated, we’ve reinvented ourselves, and we’ve made tough decisions to make the changes we needed to make.

International Paper has been providing fiber-based packaging, pulp, and paper solutions for some of the world’s largest consumer and industrial brands for more than a century. That says a lot about the enduring value of the products we make and our commitment to safe, sustainable business practices. It also speaks to the talent, engagement and commitment of our teammates and the strong leaders they become.

From your perspective as a papermaker, how does sustainability play a role for the pulp and paper industry in addressing the talent gap?

I’m excited about the way our industry’s sustainability story is gaining traction. It’s interesting, because this is not something new; the understanding of it is just coming around. In the past, we haven’t done a good job of making that simple to understand and seeking advocates. But I see that changing.

So we need to be our own advocates, and we need to put it in the context of our customers’ worlds. In many cases, we’re a major part of our customers’ overall sustainability efforts. Depending on what product they’re making, if they can package it, or construct it, using renewable and recyclable fibers, we play a major role in that. And in terms of their full value chain, this can help offset some cases where they may not have a renewable choice.

As I tell my colleagues, you don’t need to be a scientist to understand the basic fundamentals of the renewability of forests, carbon-neutral energy in converting the fiber, and recovering and recycling at the end of use. That is a fully sustainable business model that creates lots of value for lots of people—and, I would argue, for society in general.

I don’t think young people are going to give up on the idea of doing their part to make the world better. And sustaining the forest is what we do. If we don’t do that, who will?

We can say, “This is a sustainable story of value creation. Whether you want to make a career with us; invest your money with us; buy our products; or you’re lucky enough to have one of our facilities in your community, supporting the tax base and jobs—regardless of which spot (or spots) you hold as a stakeholder, we have a great option for you to be involved in our industry.”

David Buchanan, president, Voith Paper Products & Services North America, has been in his current role since 2016. His career with Voith spans 32 years and he has worked in many positions, including service, sales, product management, project management, business development, and several leadership roles over sales. Most of his career was spent on the Fabric and Roll Systems side of the business before transferring to Products and Services in 2014. Prior to that, he was vice president of sales for Fabric and Roll Systems, where he was responsible for all of Voith’s sales and service in North America. He has also led the company in other positions, including technical director and business development manager for fabrics.

David Buchanan, president, Voith Paper Products & Services North America.

Voith provides value-added products and services for its paper customers. From fabrics and rolls, products and services, and spare parts to paper machine rebuilds, stock preparation systems, and complete paper machines, Voith is a full-line supplier that serves this market through regionally distributed locations providing manufacturing, engineering, and customer service. Voith is a global technology group with 19,000 employees. Paper360° interviewed Buchanan in Charlotte, NC, at PaperCon 2018, where Voith was a Diamond-level sponsor, and more recently for this article.

When we spoke at PaperCon, you noted that “finding talent is difficult—but keeping talent is the biggest challenge.” Can you elaborate on that? How is Voith meeting that challenge?

Buchanan: We understand the market for suitable candidates is tight, and unemployment is at an all-time low in many areas. This is especially true as we seek out skilled trade employees and try to fill vacancies in our salaried workforce.

While we are always after great talent, we want to keep those employees, too. With that in mind, we’re just as focused on retaining the talent we have brought on board. To do this, we know our total benefits package must remain competitive with the market. In addition, Voith offers options to support the needs of our current employees—tuition reimbursement and flextime are two great examples. We also try to make a concentrated effort to improve company culture and employee engagement; these kinds of efforts are meant to deliver a positive work experience, which subtly contributes to employee retention.

One challenge that Voith and others in the industry are facing is that a large portion of our workforce—both in the plant and in the office—are nearing retirement. We are careful in our hiring and training, and we are actively focusing on programs to meet this challenge, including investing heavily in digitalization, which will provide better tools for our future workforce. At the same time, digitalization and even robotics are areas that our new employees are highly interested in and often fully prepared for through their own training. These new skills and the changes in the industry have made it an exciting time of transition for the paper industry.

It’s quite clear that an ongoing commitment to learning and development is very important to our employees and recent hires, so we continuously work to introduce new ways for them to grow and develop in their careers and skillsets. Two examples of this include our apprenticeships for electricians and millwrights at our Appleton, WI, facility and our Global Graduate Program (GGP), which allows recent graduates to explore Voith’s international locations (see sidebar.)

Another tool for developing our employees is our Intranet, which hosts our Service Academy. Inside it, there is an extensive series of detailed training programs covering all sections of a paper machine, from stock preparation through the winder. These programs are all online and were created by our industry experts. So if our employees want to learn about the paper industry, we have knowledge ready for them at every skill level.

To attract the right talent, you need to show new employees how you can help them develop, and that’s what we do: We provide the tools needed for employees to grow with the industry. It’s really a critical point of the hiring process.

As a major supplier to our industry, what role do you see for Voith in operator training?

We believe Voith plays a very critical role in operator training, and we are always looking for new ways to enhance that training. A good example is the virtual reality (VR) applications we developed. With VR, the operator can actually walk around his or her machine and look at the various components of the paper machine. We even shared VR kits, much like Google Cardboard, that offer an immediate opportunity to take a virtual tour of a paper plant. I think that shows how VR can be a great tool for training in the paper industry. When a company invests in this kind of technology, to me it’s proof that they’re forward-thinking, and the kind of place that will intrigue the next generation of employees.

As I mentioned earlier, digitalization is also becoming an increasingly important part of the industry, and we are actively investing in digitalizing the entire paper process. The introduction of tools for customizing interfaces and digital asset management will also make it easier to train operators and pass on knowledge and understanding of their processes and equipment.

From your perspective, what are the most important things the pulp and paper industry can do to address the talent gap?

I see a number of opportunities for companies like Voith to entice talent to consider the paper industry:

• Be creative and find ways to excite emerging talent about the paper industry. Social media is a key part of this, of course. As Glassdoor reported, 86 percent of working people who are in their first decade of employment will use social media to look for jobs and research employers. Considering this, we’re actively recruiting on the Voith LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram channels as well as on Twitter. For Twitter, we have the @Voith_Career channel, which is an ongoing list of job openings and opportunities for potential recruits to explore. I also think YouTube is appropriate for the paper industry, since the complexity of our machines can really be explored with video.

• We will continue to support the various paper science programs at local colleges and universities. This can include internships, scholarships, and facility tours that introduce fresh, forward-thinking talent to the industry.

• Continue to be involved in local high schools, trade schools and technical colleges around North America. We need to let young people know there are exciting opportunities in the paper industry.

• Identify programs such as the GGP or other mentoring/job shadowing programs to provide knowledge transfer between employees new to the industry and our current industry experts.

• Stay ahead of industry trends through innovative digital technologies, with a strong focus on automation and robotics. These are the future of production, and it’s critical that we prepare for and support that transition.

International Paper Reaches Out with STEM Support
With 52,000 employees operating in more than 24 countries, International Paper has a tremendous need for employees at every level—especially those ready to take on the technical challenges of a major manufacturer. IP offers a host of internships and co-op programs around the world, but they begin their efforts well before graduation, by focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) education.

“From the boardroom to the engineers, technology teams, control room operators, and maintenance crews, International Paper has a vested interest in ensuring there is a skilled workforce to keep our global operations running safely, reliably and cost-effectively,” says Chairman and CEO Mark Sutton. “Ensuring an effective STEM curriculum exists in primary, secondary, trade schools, and universities is a critical component to building a technically-skilled workforce.”

According to Sutton, the company’s educational outreach includes classroom interaction, technology demonstrations, career day participation, after-school STEM program sponsorship and many other activities. The focus? To inspire and motivate a diverse group of high school, post-high school, and middle school students to pursue a STEM-related education. “We engage with city and state governments to influence STEM programs and efforts through our leadership support. Our goal is to increase the alignment, collaboration, and effectiveness of STEM-related activities that are currently not well-coordinated across stakeholder groups, including high schools, universities, local businesses, and governments.

“We also work closely with targeted universities to nurture relationships with key stakeholders. This year-round effort has supported a track record of hiring and retaining strong talent,” Sutton reports.

In addition, IP has successfully expanded its internship program; the target is to convert more than 50 percent of interns to full-time employees each year. “The internship program now serves as a significant pipeline for full-time talent,” Sutton says. “The program gives students the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, interact with other interns and senior leaders, and experience IP’s culture.”


Voith’s Global Graduates Program Offers Opportunity
Often, recent college graduates find themselves making a choice—would they like to travel the world, or are they excited to head straight toward a career? For students lacking in resources, opportunities, or guidance, both choices may seem out of reach. Voith’s Global Graduate Program (GGP) is a unique opportunity that offers young graduates with diverse technical and commercial qualifications a chance to do both, while getting to know the company and expanding their professional and personal skills on and off the job.

“The program offers three six-month assignments; one located in the United States and two in other international regions, such as Brazil, China, or Germany,” explains Voith Paper North America President David Buchanan. “Plus, Global Graduates are assigned a mentor throughout this program, and the mentor helps support the Global Graduate and plan his or her assignments.”

Participants are chosen based on the business need (according to Voith, the company currently needs technical talent) and a desire to be mobile. The selection process is rigorous; those recruited to the GGP experience 18 months of fast-paced learning. Global Graduates help shape their personal development by co-deciding on their three assignments.

“After the program is complete, we work with the Global Graduate to find the right full-time position within the organization. Those who have completed GGP find themselves with a more complete view of how Voith functions, a broader network of colleagues they can turn to, and a growing understanding of the paper industry,” Buchanan says.


Voith also works to maintain a corporate culture that is attractive to young professionals, touting a “collegial, international culture” that stresses teamwork, creativity, and free exchange of ideas. In addition, “Voithians are passionate about reducing waste, conserving energy and minimizing environmental impact,” notes the company’s recruitment material (33 percent of millennials feel that employers should “improve/protect the environment,” according to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey).

Recent graduates interested in learning more can start by applying at “And be sure to check out our video about this program at,” adds Buchanan.