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Berg Conference report back

This year's TAPPSA Berg Conference, held from February 2011 at the Champagne Sports Resort, acutely reflected the challenges of the industry. Here is a small sample of the presentations made.

Following his success at the TAPPSA Southern Region's mini-symposium in October last year, Kobus van der Merwe of IME Solutions spoke on the challenges of capturing experience in an industry with a high staff turnover and a looming skills gap. To put it simply, he proposed the capture and analysis of the exact details that made up previous record production in the mill. "It is also important to identify the perceived key influencing factors [in record production]," Kobus explained, that are gathered from interviews with all staff. Once the relevant information has been captured from the opinions/mental themes and the actual figures, it is captured in one platform. This will ultimately be produced into a detailed chart that depicts ideal conditions in each part of the mill and maps real-time information to those conditions. In this way, a mill will be able to analyse and utilise existing process data to explain why record production has been met or broken - a question that the majority of mills cannot presently answer.

While Kobus spoke of the business value of mapping the mental resources of mill staff, Debbie Munford of Buckman Laboratories explained the business value of being sustainable – particularly through the protection and optimisation of water resources. Debbie explained that while South Africa has a reasonable annual precipitation, our run-off is particularly poor as water does not make its way into rivers, dams and streams for us to draw off. As a result of poor run-off, South Africa is rapidly approaching reduced water availability. Already, industry and private households in the Eastern Cape have faced stringent water restrictions over the past year. With the production of a single A4 sheet requiring 10 litres of water, Debbie made it clear that the paper industry will not be exempt from similar restrictions in the future.

For the first time, the 2011 TAPPSA Berg Conference also hosted a speaker from Kimberly-Clark, in the form of Peter Outwin, POSITION. He spoke of how Kimberly-Clark, like most paper companies, has struggled to retain employees and attract top talent. The company believes this is due to (1) a general lack of technical skills, (2) inadequate education development (which has resulted in employees from secondary education not being "industry-ready") and (3) an unattractive industry. Kimberly-Clark has addressed these challenges by creating opportunities for learning and development within their company, such as its Team Leader Development Programme, and to actively (and regularly) engage with employees on what they enjoy and dislike in their jobs.

Peter explained that these actions will inevitably grow sales profits and returns for Kimberly-Clark, and will nurture and grow core brands. This is in line with the company's goal of attaining Top 10 Employer of Choice by the CRF Survey (the company is currently in the Top 35) and of becoming a $1 billion business by 2015. Peter cautioned delegates that this success comes from investing in one's workforce: "Remember that the least important person on the floor is just as much a stakeholder as the top people."

Particularly popular amongst delegates were the presentations by Casper Nice and Jimmy Pauck (both of PAMSA) on how the industry is addressing the skills gap. Casper spoke of the Pamsa Coordinated R&D Programme, which currently supervises 12 MSc projects and 1 PhD. He began by outlining how local research is often seen as unnecessary, as mills choose to obtain this information from overseas suppliers instead as they install machinery. Process engineers are therefore becoming just as unnecessary, with a 15% loss each year for the industry. The high turnover in process engineers is primarily because they act "more as supervisors than problem solvers" in our mills, a knock-on effect of unskilled operators.

According to a Pamsa Educational Survey, explained Jimmy, it will take 10 years to provide for the current demand for educated operators, not taking into account future demand growth. South Africa's reintroduction of apprenticeship and vocational training will help speed up the process, as government is pushing for 10 000 new artisans each year. But what is still missing is complete industry support. Jimmy stated that the pulp and paper industry is "well ahead of government in our educational plans" - the only question remains is whether the industry is prepared to make use of those opportunities now already in place.

Pamsa is certainly creating positive channels of industry involvement. Casper explained that the association has responded to the crisis of diminishing process engineers by not only training operators but also developing engineers that will improve (and stay in) the industry through applied research. This will improve our industry's international competitiveness and will develop our research capacity in technologies to support the paper industry. The available research, as outlined by Pamsa, links to local universities' research and to government funding programmes that are currently underutilised. As previously published in the TAPPSA Journal, Pamsa selects students and supervisors. Each Pamsa member company (Sappi, Mondi, Kimberly-Clark, Nampak) will select a student to complete research within their mills and then provide them with a job in one of their mills upon completion. Pamsa sponsors R100 000 per project, while the member company contributes R80 000 per annum. In total, R1.6 million/annum is now supplied by industry and government to produce 6 engineers every year. The first five engineers are well advanced, and Pamsa is developing a survey for all industry engineers to determine if the association is still on the right track with their research directions. TAPPSA Journal will be following up on this in our upcoming publications.

To access the other interesting presentations given at the 2011 Berg Conference, including Procemex's provision of the only truly integrated web monitoring system, visit the TAPPSA website.

While the 2011 Berg Conference's presentations and tea-time discussions gave productive insight into overcoming industry challenges, what was perhaps most telling of the challenges facing TAPPSA was the minimal mill presence at the Conference. Mill staff and those involved in mill-based research accounted for just over a third of delegates. While this posed no problem for socialising at the very successful golf and family activities and at the superb gala dinner, the dominance of suppliers was not ideal for networking.

The 2010 TAPPSA National Conference and Exhibition had a significant mill representation, especially from top-management of major local paper producers. So what is motivating the increasingly poor response to smaller TAPPSA functions such as the Berg Conference? Do we need to change the venue, or do we need to further reduce sporting and family-based activities to create a business-only weekend? Or do we need to minimise supplier presentations and only push research-based speakers? Without mill input as to how to better facilitate the Berg Conference to mill employees, the hesitancy on where TAPPSA has gone right and where the association has gone wrong will remain endless.

Back to Volume 2 2011 Issue