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Sappi Works to Pass On Baby-Boomer Knowledge at Cloquet Mill

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According to a report this past week by the Pine Journal, Cloquet, Minn., USA, it's no secret that aging baby boomers are retiring in the U.S. in large numbers and, in some cases, taking years or even a lifetime of experience with them.    

With the help of a $350,000 grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, the state's Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and Sappi Fine Paper N.A. (Boston, Mass.) are working together to solve the problem of that disappearing knowledge base. Their work begins at the paper mill in Cloquet where they will be developing an in-house training system for Sappi employees and then teaching them how to use it.

The three-year project will support entry-level, retraining, and advanced training for employees at the paper mill, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced during a partnership signing agreement ceremony held at Sappi’s Cloquet mill on January 28. The signing ceremony included FDLTCC president Larry Anderson and Mike Schultz, managing director of Sappi’s Cloquet mill, along with Paul Moe, director of Minnesota Job Skills Partnership Program.

Schultz said after years of discussion about a possible project between Sappi and FDLTCC, the high numbers of employees eligible for retirement at the paper mill brought the project more sharply into focus this past year. Years ago the retirement rate at Sappi was only 3%— now it has risen to 10%

"There is a vacuum of workers left by the retiring baby boomers," Moe said. "It's sobering for many employers."

The proposed "Knowledge Management and Training System" will house Sappi’s knowledge base in a way that is accessible for all employees. The computerized, user-friendly system will be used to identify, document, and transfer employees’ knowledge so that critical information can be shared, and unique information based on experience can be passed on from retiring generations of workers to new ones.

The development of the program will begin with individual interviews with each of the Cloquet paper mill’s 538 hourly employees. Two retired Sappi employees have been hired by FDLTCC as subject matter experts and are helping head up the project. They have begun organizing information and conducting interviews in order to determine where to start with the large project.

"To begin, we will look at jobs that are more easily defined as a means of getting acclimated with this new process," Schultz said. "Once this occurs (in approximately six months) we will move to our top positions as this is where we expect to see the turnover being the greatest and where the accumulation of years of experience and knowledge is most profound and at risk of not being captured for future workers."

For example, some jobs will be videotaped so the viewer can see step-by-step instructions from someone who has had years of experience working the machine. The videos can help an employee who is a visual learner understand the process more easily than reading instructions from a written manual, although the written manuals will still be available.

The system will accommodate many different learning styles, including written, audio, video, and diagrams, and will be accessible via computer stations and handheld tablets. When the program is completed, employees of Sappi will have a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge of many of the jobs in the mill. The variety of media formats can be updated if the need arises in the future.

"We envision a simple "YouTube" type video along with a narrative from an experienced operator as an example of how we would use a knowledge management system in practice," Schultz said. "Many activities are best learned on the job. However, to accelerate the process and keep them uniform it requires we provide our employees with as much available knowledge as possible."

According to Jeannie Kermeen, FDLTCC customized training director and the grant writer, this system will provide answers to immediate issues such as machine malfunction, maintenance, and repairs in a consistent manner, in addition to the training.

The employees will be interviewed and tested on their knowledge after they have used the training program to see where their job understanding is and if any more training will be necessary. Based on the interviews, Sappi will identify remaining skills gaps and work with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on future training.

After they learn how to use the system, employees will have digital access to the technical information and documents needed to perform their jobs, which is vital information that often disappears when experienced, senior-level staff retire. Employees will also complete job task certification training modules needed for career advancement. The new training system could potentially be applied at Sappi locations across the country.

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