Several seasoned executives offered insights during PaperCon about how their companies are dealing the demographic and cultural shifts that have our industry facing a bubble of retirements in coming years, coupled with a shortage of incoming employees. The “brain drain” and loss of institutional knowledge was one of the topics addressed during an executive panel discussion at PaperCon, the annual conference and trade show of TAPPI.

Jim Hannan, CEO and president of Georgia-Pacific said there is no single answer to the challenge of replacing the many people retiring from pulp and paper companies in the near future. His company is “trying to creatively problem-solve across the organization.” Georgia-Pacific is a major producer of tissue products, packaging, cellulose (pulp) and building products.

In some cases, said Hannan, retirees are leaving with an enormous amount of institutional knowledge. To combat that, Georgia-Pacific is trying to identify people within its organization who can pass on their knowledge and engaging them in a sort of apprenticeship situation. The company is also working to recruit talent, pairing with colleges to customize programs and add a co-op element that can supply future skilled workers for G-P facilities.

John Panichella is CEO of Solenis, a supplier of specialty chemicals and technology. He quoted a TAPPI forecast that says 33% of the pulp and paper industry’s management will retire in the next ten years. Panichella suggested that companies must leverage big data, digitization and automation as “different ways to transfer knowledge.”

A message of hope came from Steven Voorhees, CEO of packaging manufacturer RockTenn. “I like the paper industry. It’s a fun business,” he noted. “I think we are the core of the American economy. Our industry is very important to the fabric of our cities.”

Voorhees pointed out 11 mills within the RockTenn organization that are more than 100 years old, including the mill in La Tuque, Que., which has been in operation for 107 years. He sees this as a testament of our industry’s ability to adapt and withstand adversity.