The impact of digitalization on our changing workforce within the pulp and paper industry

The recent drive towards digitalization, hugely accelerated by the pandemic, is creating an exciting paradigm shift in the pulp and paper industry, particularly in its influence on the workforce and the ways in which it will enable us to attract and retain top talent in the future.

Authored by William Dannelly, Global Product Line Manager for Pulp and Paper and first published in Paper 360 magazine.

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ABB holds a position as an enabler of efficient work practices and has a clear vision of helping the industry move towards autonomous operations. The global pandemic has been a powerful catalyst in forcing a traditionally conservative, hands-on industry to embrace digital faster than anticipated and remove barriers to progress. It has created a seismic shift in both the way mills operate and how we approach our most valuable asset, our workforce. The result is that those both in and serving the industry are now able to track and recruit a wider group of people that may not have previously considered pulp and paper as a career choice.

Furthermore, according to research by global management consulting firm McKinsey, it is estimated that this digitalization could save the pulp and paper industry $20 billion by 2025, raising productivity, reducing waste and keeping mills safe, which will certainly continue to drive the industry to maintain this shift even post pandemic.

Megatrends impacting new engineers entering the digital workplace

The ability to use information intelligently is crucial and scientists are often attracted by the huge amounts of data being harnessed to innovate at all levels of an enterprise. However, the breadth and depth of the volume of data now available – from real-time to deep historical data sets, and across the entire mill or globally-dispersed enterprises -  is a very challenging field to mine. The size, as well as the conditioning and temporal alignment of data, can come as a surprise to engineers entering the pulp and paper workplace. This often appeals to the best digital-native talent who can flex their most up-to-date skills to improve operations in ways historically not possible.

Tomorrow’s engineering generation will see a shift of skills recognition with the automation systems of the future designed to include gaming elements that harness the talents of Generation Z. Inclusion of these elements will be introduced at many different levels across industry, including in the design and use of process industry systems. The familiarity and recognition created by these changes will make the sector more appealing to the young, digital native engineers of the gaming generation.

ABB has already seen the benefits of this first-hand during a two-month project at our R&D center in Ireland in the summer of 2019. We challenged our interns to use new technology to address an old problem: training. It was incredible to see how the fusion of creativity and digital technologies was used to transform our training manuals, CAD files and Augmented Reality headsets into an application that was both fun, progressive and, at the same time, instructive. The end result was a training application on how to carry out electrical maintenance on a panel, gamified using Augmented Reality and timed to add a competitive edge. This certainly opened our eyes to how we harness technology when it comes to training and has greatly influenced our recruitment approach.

Ready to harness the power of data for effective and successful digitalization?

Engaging with the new breed of data scientists is key to ensuring success in digitalization. How do you build appeal for this audience?


What does this mean for the future—and current—workforce?

1/ Opportunities

Part of this emerging revolution is a data-driven management approach to enable key technical and operations management roles to be performed remotely, away from production sites. Increasingly, these will be in urban locations where key talent prefers to live rather than requiring moves to the typically rural settings of pulp and paper mills.

Not only will Generation Z’s digital natives have more choice and flexibility in their jobs, but the work will also be more exciting. Through Edge and Cloud-connected technologies, they will have visualization over the entire operations from afar. They will be able to contribute in enterprise-wide operations and CapEx planning, process and quality optimization and customer service. The ability to both make meaningful contributions and have insight into end-to-end operations will give more exposure and experience than has previously been possible for young recruits. 

Expanded opportunity will also prove true for current pulp and paper professionals in the early-to-middle part of their careers. Their knowledge of the pulp and paper process coupled with a digital mindset will open career advancement, relocation and collaboration possibilities, helping to drive change through the powerful combination of understanding complex processes and analyzing data.

This means that large corporations with multiple mills can better leverage their resources. For example, they can have one control loop tuning expert sitting in New York, and remotely supporting those multiple mills or augmenting with the capability that ABB has always had to support operations remotely. These remote specialists can now each be brought in as and when needed, therefore increasing the quality of the output, which until now has been a particular challenge for single-entity mills who have to prioritize when and how to use expert support.

This is becoming more commonplace and revolutionizing the way that people work. For example, ABB successfully delivered a 90 percent remote commissioning of an end-to-end electrical solution for a major North American manufacturer which produced its first reel of paper in January. We have also been working with other customers to set up machines, modernize mills and install new drive systems, all without our experts leaving their home countries.

Whether you take an in-mill position or start in a remote-support position, the advancement opportunities have never been greater, especially if you can combine real-world experience with new process automation and advanced data analytics. These opportunities will be enhanced even more if you have the ability to maintain real relationships, showing a combination of soft and hard skills. Digitalization does not mean that you can hide behind your remote office; close colleague relationships continue to be crucial to success, and satisfaction, and we need to find a way to protect these.

Key to using information intelligently is mining the vast quantities of data and using Generation Z technologies - gaming and AR included - to fuse creativity and digital technology

2/ Hurdles

While many of the logistical barriers have been removed, there are still more complex hurdles facing the next generation that we, as an industry, will need to address. As someone who has worked remotely for 30 years, in commissioning and engineering, plus travelling to locations, I recognize some of these issues.

For example, self-initiative has always been an attractive quality but in today’s landscape it is needed more than ever. With the flexibility to work remotely and across any industry self-motivation will be essential to succeed in the absence of a mentor or boss constantly around to offer direction and encouragement. However, from the worker’s perspective, self-management of their work/life balance takes a more important role. With no physical office to leave or colleagues to say goodbye to workers will need to stay disciplined about ‘working hours’, a problem that many people cross-industry have experienced while working remotely during the pandemic. 

It is no longer about working the “8-5”; it’s about your efficiency and what works best for you. I think this will be a major paradigm shift that will allow working parents, for example, more freedom to get work done when it better fits in with their day. Mills with 24/7 operations are also a natural fit for this change; you can now have experts who actually prefer to support mills at 10pm.

There will also naturally be a generational difference in mindset. Applicants cannot think that their superior digital skills alone will get them hired. They need to differentiate themselves by showing an interest in understanding the process so that they aren’t just using ‘data for data’s sake’ but internalizing how to use information to solve real mill problems. ABB is in the business of solving customer problems, so recruits need to remember they are working on real issues, not just a sheet of numbers.


Today’s generation has a desire to affect change in society; they want to have a vested interest in companies that share their values and beliefs. We therefore need to be promoting what we do, as an often over-looked industry, to prove that we are as committed to sustainability as any other sector. The entire paper and printing sector contributes less than 1% to the global greenhouse gas inventory due to the very high use of renewable energy, which is mostly biomass. We need to engage talent in our work on sustainable forestry, electricity neutral mills and highlight how we generate electricity from our own raw materials, making it a self-sufficient operation with a low impact on the grid.

Our industry is well placed to join the digital revolution, as pulp and paper producers typically start from a strong position when it comes to collected or collectable data. Adopting a digital-first approach will help give the pulp and paper mill industry the ability to effectively compete with other industries and even with "big tech" for the best new talent.

McKinsey estimates that the paper and forest-products industry has much to gain from embracing digital manufacturing and that the total cost base of a producer could be reduced by as much as 15 percent. New technologies, such as ABB’s Virtual Measurements and Performance Services made available through our Collaborative Operations delivery model, present tremendous opportunities for increased efficiency and cost reductions - while maintaining quality parameters.

I believe that we will be seeing a lot more change in our workforce and at ABB we are already reviewing our recruitment approach to ensure that we attract and retain the best talent possible moving forward.

However, in all of this change, we should never lose sight of the value of traditional process expertise which is still as important now as before. The benefits of the digitalization are meaningless unless our talent has a deep knowledge and understanding of the pulp and paper industry’s complex process interactions. Ultimately, this will remain the most important differentiator and what sets an applicant (and supplier) apart for mills looking for talent. 

With a strong position when it comes to collected or collectable data, pulp & paper is well-placed to join the digital revolution and attract industry-leading talent that can propel it to a digital-first culture

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