That’s what students in Western Michigan University’s paper engineering program are finding out through the college’s extensive internship and job placement system.
Research knowledge coupled with multiple years of real-world experience and a high demand for paper engineers means that WMU’s paper engineering program can boast a 100-percent job placement rate with starting salaries above $67,000. Professors in the program say those are impressive figures for a manufacturing-related degree in a time of still-high unemployment.
WMU’s paper engineering program, which dates back to 1948, is one of 10 such programs in the country and one of a few programs that began not in forestry but in chemistry. WMU Professor John Bergin said the university and North Carolina State are the two schools in the country that have a true paper engineering program.
“The program focuses on the chemistry and processes … behind the operations that are required to start with a tree … and end up with a sheet of paper or a package,” Bergin said.
Students in the paper engineering program gain a broad knowledge of the paper industry, making them attractive to not just paper mills and packaging companies but also chemical suppliers to the industry and process consultants, Bergin said. Companies that employ graduates of WMU’s program include The Dow Chemical Company, Styron LLC, Ashland Inc. and Rock-Tenn Company.
Often, these companies are recruiting students while they are still in school, said Thomas Joyce, professor in WMU’s paper engineering program.
“The paper industry 10 years ago was really in bad shape, and many people left,” Joyce said. “Now the paper industry is coming back, and there’s not enough trained people. So our graduates have multiple offers, and companies are courting them a year ahead of graduation. … The hidden agenda here is that the companies are looking to hire these people when they graduate because there aren’t enough paper engineers to go around.”
While WMU’s graduates are finding easy entry to the industry, the industry as a whole has been on a long-term decline in terms of demand and profitability, according to market research firm IBISWorld. The firm’s Oct. 2012 report showed U.S. paper mills contracted 1.1 percent from 2007 to 2011 while paper product manufacturing declined 3.4 percent in the same period. However, the paperboard industry grew 2.7 percent from 2007 to 2011, driven by increased manufacturing activity in recent years, the report stated.
The North American industry outlook remains tempered by slow economic growth and uncertainty with new environmental regulation, health care laws and the financial markets, according to Deloitte’s 2012 outlook. The industry is coming off a five-year period of consolidation and capacity reduction, the report stated, noting that the projected weak demand favors companies that have strong financial positions. The report noted a “significant” gap between strong and weak companies in the paper industry.
Currently, Bergin said that the pulp and paper industry made up five percent of manufacturing GDP in the United States.
However, multi-faceted engineers are in-demand in the paper industry, as they are in other sectors, including the automotive industry, the professors said. Bergin likened the study of paper engineering to the application of chemistry onto a practical manufacturing process.
“It is fundamentally chemical engineering and chemistry focused on the paper industry,” Bergin said. “If you look at other examples, it would be very similar to petroleum engineering. In this sense, this is unique and fundamental to the pulp and paper industry.”
Part of what makes graduates of WMU’s paper engineering program so attractive to employers is the curriculum, the professors said. However, the university also ensures its students gain significant real-world experience through WMU’s internship program in which students work part-time jobs or internships while in school and in the summers.
“Students can get some real good experience with these companies,” Joyce said. “They all want these summer jobs and internships so they really do understand what goes on in a mill, and their learning curve has been accelerated through these placements.”
These internships can be lucrative as well. Joyce often sees students flourish through internships with companies in both the paper and chemical industries.
“And they’re paid quite well,” Joyce said, noting some students can earn up to $90,000 combined from various internships. “When you add in scholarships, students can almost pay their way through college.”
These internships and jobs can take on the form of anything from working on the mill or factory floor to selling chemicals, Joyce said.
“They can be in a testing laboratory, in quality control, they can be junior process engineers where they troubleshoot equipment, and some people work for chemical suppliers,” Joyce said. “The paper industry requires a lot of chemicals to process the products. A significant portion of our students go to the chemical supplier industry.”
Additionally, Joyce said students can get research experience in the industry since many companies turn to the university for research assistance.
“Some companies use the students in routine testing and things like that, but oftentimes they will come to us and say, ‘We have this problem. Maybe a professor and a student can work on it together in conjunction with us,’” Joyce said. “So the company gets something out of it because a problem gets solved, and the student, acting with the professor, gets some practical research experience also.”
This research largely has to do with the application of coatings on paper as well as with waste disposal and recycling, he said.
One of the most promising research projects — being conducted by Margaret Joyce, the wife of Thomas Joyce — focuses on printed electronics. The group is studying how to print circuit boards on paper.
This research component exposes the students to the process of consulting for a company as well as how to solve problems outside academia, Joyce said. That combination of skills and experience has graduates in-demand with employers.
“Our students go into a company with much more experience than a typical engineering student would,” Joyce said. “They’re much more sophisticated in their knowledge of the industry than an engineer from Western who’s going to go work in the aircraft industry. I really think our students know what the paper industry is all about and what it’s trying to accomplish.”