Learning the trade: Pulp and paper classes continue despite mill closure
The paper mill has long been a staple of the Canton community, offering generations of residents the opportunity for regular work and steady pay. So it’s no coincidence that Pisgah High School offers three levels of Pulp and Paper Technology classes — a curriculum that provides students the opportunity to learn the basics needed to enter the paper industry.
But as the mill has announced it’s closing for good, upending the lives of over 1,000 employees and hundreds of families while devastating the community, it still doesn’t signal the end of pulp and paper classes for high school students.
On a recent Thursday morning at Pisgah High School, in a giant classroom at the back of F building, Wendell Godfrey’s pulp and paper class is already busy.
Half the space is home to what one would expect to find in any high school classroom — rows of desks facing a white board, but the back half of the same room houses a full paper-making lab.
The place is alive with the sounds of running water, machines whirring and students talking, all of which melds with the voices of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream” loudly in the background. The lab corner of the room is ringed with paper-making equipment — a few 200-gallon water tanks, huge steel boxes, presses, conveyor ovens and refiners that break down pulp.
At the center of it all is Wendell (W.C.) Godfrey, pulp and paper teacher at Pisgah High School. There are those in his class that will admit to signing up for pulp and paper purely because they love Godfrey; with over 20 years of experience, the teacher is a wealth of information for those even remotely interested in the industry.
Godfrey first took an interest in paper while getting his chemical engineering degree from Clemson University.
“We had one class that had a section on paper,” said Godfrey. “So as a chemical engineer, you got the energy industry, paper industry, chemical supplies, the whole nine yards. I just interviewed with anybody that had anything to do with chemical engineering. Exxon wanted me to go down to Louisiana, Champion at the time wanted me to go to Ohio, and then Ecusta over in Brevard said come on in, so that’s where it all started.”
Ecusta Mill is a former flax pulping and paper manufacturing facility that was built in 1939 and stayed in operation until 2002. While working at Ecusta, Godfrey got his master’s degree in business from Western Carolina University. From Ecusta, he went on to work at Jackson Paper, after which he began consulting for the industry. Then he transitioned into teaching business at AB Tech, where he still teaches some classes, as well as Haywood Community College, where he started teaching Pulp and Paper Technology.
Over the years, what was then Blue Ridge Paper in Canton was having trouble attracting young employees. The pulp and paper classes were instituted to help bring young people in.
“They were seeing the average age in manufacturing was way high,” said Godfrey. “They had 400 people going out in four years.”
The question became, “How do you get new folks into your industry?” Godfrey said.
In an effort to get young people prepared for and interested in the paper industry, HCC began offering Pulp and Paper Technology classes, but administrators soon realized they needed to catch students even younger in order to prepare them for further education, or careers, in the paper industry, so the HCC class transitioned into a high school class at Pisgah.
“We quickly realized that we needed to start at the high school level and build the program,” Godfrey said. “So that’s how we evolved to be here at Pisgah High School.”
Money allocated in 2012 allowed for an expansion at Pisgah High School, part of which made way for the pulp and paper lab. Most of the equipment in the lab was purchased with a grant from the National Science Foundation that was awarded to Haywood Community College when the class was hosted there. Once the class moved to Pisgah, HCC donated all the equipment to the high school.
The seemingly obvious connection between Pisgah High School and the Canton paper mill strengthened quickly. In the beginning, students who took all the pulp and paper classes offered got a free pass on the entry-level test at the mill.
“That’s how it started,” said Godfrey. “And over the years, it’s evolved into getting looked at preferentially as you go through the hiring process because you have the technology behind. So, it wasn’t an automatic hire. But with the letter of recommendation from me then you got, so to speak, moved to the head of the line.”
Thursday morning, there are 16 students present in Pulp and Paper Technology II. Each mans the station they’ve been assigned, and collectively they move through the whole process, from making pulp to pressing and drying brand new sheets of paper.
Will Perry is an advanced studies Pulp and Paper Technology student, meaning he has taken all levels of the class available and is now working on an independent study with Godfrey, part of which includes helping students in the level II class. He and Godfrey both circulate around the stations answering questions and making sure everything runs smoothly.
After working his way through Godfrey’s classes at Pisgah, Perry had plans to work at the Canton paper mill following high school. He had been through a couple of steps in the hiring process and, coupled with Godfrey’s recommendation, a job was all but certain. When Perry heard the news about the impending closure, he was bummed, he says.
Students in the class described similar reactions when they found out that the mill would be closing soon — they’re worried for the abundance of friends and family whose parents and other close relations will lose their jobs. Almost everyone knows someone who’s possibly facing the reality of leaving town.
Dylan Dietz is among those students who is unsure what may be coming next; his father works at the mill. This morning Deitz is running the paper-making machine. He pours pulp into a giant steel box, then fills the box the rest of the way up with water. He watches carefully as the water drains, and he’s left with a paper-thin square of soggy white mush in the bottom. Next, handling the remains gingerly, he moves them into the steel press where he squeezes out as much moisture as possible. Then, he expertly peels what is starting to resemble a sheet of paper from the press, places it between two thick pieces of paper and puts all of it into an Emerson Speed Dryer.
Deitz, kind and soft-spoken, says that in addition to being unsure of the future of his father’s career, he is unsure of what’s next for him. A junior in Pulp and Paper Technology II, with family at the mill, Deitz says he had planned on finding work there after graduation. Now, that’s no longer an option.
Of his 70 students this semester, Godfrey said that about 10 expressed direct interest in seeking employment at the Canton mill. Another five were interested in working for Wilsonart, a company that turns paper into laminate.
Of the 1,000 workers currently at Pactiv Evergreen in Canton, Godfrey estimates that about 100 came through his pulp and paper class.
But the mill’s shuttering doesn’t mean the pulp and paper classes will suddenly become irrelevant or that there won’t be opportunities to take the experience and education in paper making elsewhere. Godfrey is confident that pulp and paper will not only remain in place at Pisgah, it will also stay relevant despite the sudden closure. Right now, he is working to help find outlets for those students who had planned on pursuing work at the mill following high school.
Part of the class involves visits to several mills in the area, which not only allows students to observe real life work spaces but also builds connections for potential employment. Godfrey says the class will still have access to Jackson Paper; the tissue mill in Anderson, South Carolina; UPM Raflatac in Mills River that converts paper into labels; Wilsonart in Asheville and Fletcher which converts paper into laminate; and Jacob Holm Industries which does a paper-making-like process but with nonwovens for products like diapers. During his interim, Godfrey taught for Domtar Packaging Mill in Kingsport, Tennessee, and so also has connections there.
“We still have that paper and paper–related industry in the area,” said Godfrey. “We’ve got some things that are available, it’s just not in the backyard, which hurts.”
But the close connection between Pisgah and the mill did provide special opportunities for pulp and paper students that other mills don’t provide.
“When we go to these other places besides [the Canton mill], we just do a general tour,” said Godfrey. “When we went to [the Canton] mill, the mill became their lab. They would actually do evaluations of parts of the process, so we would get behind the scenes, instead of just taking the general mill tour.”
While there are plenty of students in the class worried about people that may be leaving town, there are also those who know friends and family that have been able to find other work close to home.
“I’ve met with corporate HR, I’ve been impressed with some of the things they’ve done with Haywood Community College, the career fair and all these kinds of things,” said Godfrey. “I’ve been impressed that they decided to abide by the contract they were trying to formulate even though it wasn’t approved, so some good things. They recently gave all the employees raises.”
As for Perry, the advanced studies student, he is originally from Wilmington. He’s located a mill on that end of the state where he plans to pursue work after graduation.
Godfrey has witnessed vast transformations in the paper industry during his 20-plus years. Throughout changes in the market and technological developments in the industry, his class remains relevant because students are learning the basics of what they need to know to get into the industry.
“The reason pulp and paper still exists today is because they want people to have some level of technical skills before you come into the industry,” said Godfrey. “So, you still get those same technical skills, you still get that same mindset, you understand the process, things mixing together, the logistics of how it fits together.”
As for the market, some of the changes are obvious.
“For particular markets, there have been some declines,” Godfrey said. “For instance, social media basically took over a lot of the newspaper.”
As we continue to march at break-neck pace into the digital age, Godfrey says that changes in digital technology have caused a decrease in the use of uncoated freesheet, a grade of printing and writing paper that used to be made at the Pactiv Evergreen Canton mill.
Similarly, cup and other drink container packaging was the bread-and-butter product of the mill in Canton. Godfrey says he’s seen a shift in the market that has made converting packaging — putting coding and printing on it and selling it to consumers — more profitable than manufacturing the packaging.
“If I was a manager at a mill, and I see my market starting to decline — and this would be years ago, like two years ago, you don’t just do this in a heartbeat — then I’m talking to corporate research, I am talking to my corporate marketing to figure out, what can we do to meet the existing and future industry?” said Godfrey. “I’m sitting here Monday morning quarterbacking, but there’s so many aspects to all of this. It just takes planning.”
Just like the students in his class, Godfrey is worried about the families and local businesses that depended on a local economy bolstered by the mill. He’s confident that he can work to connect those of his students interested in the industry with the resources and employers they need, but he too wishes that Pactiv Evergreen had found another solution, one that didn’t involve the loss of over 1,000 jobs.
“I understand business, I understand bottom line, I understand you’re traded on NASDAQ, or whatever you’re traded on, so you have to look out for shareholder equity,” said Godfrey. “But the planning? Two weeks before they announced the closing of the mill, they announced the shutdown of machine 20. You mean in two weeks you went from just idling one machine to shutting the whole mill down?”