Paper Processing Worker Career

In papermaking, wood, recycled paper, and a small amount of vegetable fibers are turned into pulp, which is spread in a very thin layer, pressed, and dried. The mass-production processes in which large quantities of paper are made involve the use of highly complicated machinery. Paper processing workers are skilled and semi­skilled production workers who complete this process. Also among this group of workers are research, technical, and supervisory personnel, who play various roles in the production of the end product. Approximately 111,000 people are employed as paper goods machine setters, operators, and tenders.

Paper Processing Worker Career History

We use it every day. In fact, you are probably within an arm’s reach of some kind of paper product right now. But how often do you stop to think about where paper comes from and what processes it goes through? Although you may take it for granted, the process of turning pulp into a finished paper product is an interesting and ancient one.

Wood-based paper as we know it today can be traced to China around a.d. 100. The craft of papermak­ing spread to the Middle East in the 8th century, and eventually, as a result of expeditions made during the Crusades, to Europe. Until the industrial revolution, all paper was made by hand, using a laborious process that produced a single sheet at a time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the first papermaking machines were invented; however, these were simple contraptions that also made only one sheet of paper at a time by dipping a framed screen into a vat of pulp and allowing the sheet to dry. In the early 1800s, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier patented a machine that improved upon the early equipment and used a cylindrical mechanism to produce continuous rolls of paper (even today, some papermaking machines are called fourdrinier machines). In later years, machines were invented that chemically processed or ground pulp-wood into pulp for papermaking. This made possible the mass production of paper and the development of pulp and paper processing as a major industry.

Paper Processing WorkerThe main source of fiber for making paper used to be rags or cloth that was converted to pulp; other sources have been straws and grasses. Beginning in the mid- to late-1800s, however, most paper began to be made from wood fiber. Although the materials have changed and the machinery has become very mechanized within the last several hundred years, the essential principles used in making paper are still the same. These principles involve separating and wetting the fibers, creating the pulp, filter­ing the pulp, squeezing out excess water, and allowing the pulp to dry and be compressed.

As environmental issues have become increasingly important in our society, the paper processing indus­try has witnessed certain changes concerning the reuse of used paper. Recycling of waste paper has become an industry in itself, as environmental concerns have under­scored the potential problems in disposing of our nation’s trash. New occupations will continue to be formed as the recycling industry struggles to solve technical problems, such as methods for refining and purifying used paper, and general problems, such as how to encourage the pub­lic to be more aware of waste paper issues.

Paper Processing Worker Job Description

The U.S. Department of Labor has cataloged nearly 250 distinct job titles for the skilled and semiskilled workers who operate pulp and paper processing machinery. These workers perform a wide variety of duties, throughout the entire spectrum of the pulp and papermaking process.

Pulpmaking and papermaking are two separate pro­cesses. Some mills produce only pulp, some only paper, and still others—called integrated mills—produce both. Daishowa Forest Products, Limited, of Quebec City, Que­bec, Canada, owns both pulp mills and paper mills. Mark

Turcotte, human resources manager for Daishowa, says that the mills’ main product is newsprint—the kind of paper used in newspapers everywhere. Daishowa’s mills are highly computerized, according to Turcotte. “The mills are run by operators, who work on computers,” he says. “They follow the process through on the com­puter, starting with wood chips and continuing all the way until the pulp is transported, in tanks, to the paper mill.” Turcotte says that the only employees who actually work hands-on with the machinery are maintenance and repair workers.

The pulping process truly begins at the barker. The barker operator controls the movement of cut logs into and out of machines that clean and strip the bark. Several types of machines may be used in this step of the paper-making process, but all operate on the same principle. The logs are fed into the barker on a conveyor belt. In the barker, they are tumbled against a revolving drum that strips off the bark, while a jet of water, con­trolled by the barker operator, washes off dirt and other impu­rities. If logs become jammed in a machine, the barker operator breaks up the jam with a pike pole and chain hoist. The cleaned and stripped logs are carried on a conveyor belt to the chipping machine.

The chipper operates a machine that cuts logs into one-inch-square chips in preparation for their conversion into pulp. He or she regulates the flow of the logs according to their size. At Daishowa, these jobs are per­formed in the wood yard, accord­ing to Turcotte. The work of the pulp mill begins when the chips arrive at the mill.

Turcotte’s mill uses a thermo-mechanical process to make pulp. In this process, the chips are fed into machines that grind them into smaller fibers. After this, the fiber is placed into a large vat and mixed with water and other chemical products. During this process, the color of the pulp is lightened. “The operator of the mill basically has the responsibil­ity of running all the machinery for a 12-hour shift,” Turcotte says. “He sits in a booth, with the whole process in front of him on a computer.”

In another method of pulping, chemical pulping, wood chips are cooked along with soda, ash, acid, or other chem­icals in a high-pressure vat, or digester. The digester opera­tor, a skilled worker who supervises one or more helpers, operates controls that regulate the temperature and pres­sure inside the digesters and the flow of steam into these machines. This worker tests samples of the digester liquid to determine when the pulp has been cooked to the proper degree. When the process is completed, the pulp, which has the consistency of wet cotton, is mechanically blown or dumped into a blow tank where it is washed to remove traces of chemicals and other impurities. Pulp to be used for white paper is then bleached in a chemical process.

The papermaking process begins where the pulping process ends. In its first step, the beater engineer controls the process that mixes the pulp with sizing, fillers, and dyes to produce a liquid pulp solution. The beater engi­neer starts the pumps of the beater engines and controls the flow of pulp into the vat by regulating the opening and closing of valves. “Again, everything is controlled by computer in this operation,” Turcotte says. After the liquid pulp solution has been mixed, the beater engi­neer draws samples of it for testing in the laboratory and uses sophisticated computer equipment to make sure the desired consistency and fiber size have been reached.

The paper-machine operator is largely responsible for the quality of the finished paper. As the liquid pulp enters one end (called the wet end) of the huge paper machine, it flows over a continuously moving belt of fine wire screen, which causes the fibers to adhere and form a thin sheet of paper as the liquid from the pulp drains out. The paper-machine operator regulates the flow of pulp and the speed and pitch of the machine’s wire belt to produce paper of desired thickness, width, and strength. This operator uses a computerized process control system to monitor the qual­ity of the paper being produced and also draws samples to be sent to the lab. In addition, the operator may supervise other workers on the machine crew.

Backtenders work at the opposite end (that is, the dry end) of the paper machine, usually under the supervi­sion of the paper-machine operator. They operate the machinery that dries, calendars (smooths), and finishes the paper and winds it onto rolls. Backtenders control the temperature of the drying and calendaring rolls, adjust their tension level, and control the speed of the continu­ous sheet of paper through an automated control system. They inspect the paper for spots, holes, and wrinkles, and they mark defective sections for removal. The back-tenders also operate the machinery that cuts the rolls of paper into smaller rolls for shipment.

Process engineers work in the mills to help estab­lish schedules to ensure maximum use of equipment, employees, tools, and capacity. They are responsible for coordinating production operations to meet delivery dates of finished product. Quality control engineers install and oversee product inspecting and testing procedures within the mills that are used to establish and maintain quality standards.

Pulp-and-paper lab testers use standard testing equip­ment and chemical analyses to monitor and control the quality of paper products. Testers determine the liquid content of cooked pulp and measure its acidity with a pH meter. Using a wire screen, a press, and a drying oven similar to those used in the days when all paper was made by hand, they make a single sheet of paper from the pulp. They then examine it under a microscope and use auto­mated equipment to count the number of dirt specks in a unit area. They test the sample sheet for bursting, tearing, and folding strength on an apparatus specially developed for this purpose. They also perform these tests on samples of paper from the huge rolls produced by the paper machine. The pulp-and-paper tester also tests paper samples for brightness, using a reflectance meter, and for weight, thickness, and bulk, using scales and a micrometer. All test data are recorded and reported to the machine operators, with instructions to correct varia­tions from the standard specifications. Some paper mills put their lab data on a computer database so the data can be used by both machine operators and customers.

Other paper processing occupations include pulp plant supervisors, who coordinate all the activities of workers who are responsible for the cooking, bleaching, and screening of pulp in preparation for use in making paper; cylinder-machine operators, who operate cylinder-type equipment for making paper, cardboard, insulation board, and other types of fiber sheets; and control inspectors, who inspect pulpwood boards (such as ceiling tiles, insulation panels, and siding) that are used in construction.

Paper Processing Worker Career Requirements

Mark Turcotte says that all the machine operators in Daishowa’s paper and pulp mills have college degrees in papermaking. Other companies are less rigorous in their educational requirements. As a rule, however, paper com­panies generally require at least a high school diploma for skilled and semiskilled production positions.

High School

If you are considering a career in paper processing, high school courses in chemistry, physics, and mathematics are valuable. Because the industry is heavily computerized, basic computer skills are vital. You should take classes in computers whenever possible. If you are interested in installing and repairing paper processing machinery, courses in shop, mechanical drawing, and blueprint read­ing may also prove helpful.

Postsecondary Training

A bachelor’s degree is strongly recommended for those who are interested in this industry. Such degrees as wood science and technology, papermaking, engineering, or business are good options. Courses in mathematics, chemistry, computer, and wood science are important. Applicants with degrees from junior colleges or technical institutes may be hired as laboratory technicians.

Other Requirements

According to Turcotte, the ability to work on a team is key to success in this career. “Each person has a specific responsibility, and it’s important that everyone really pull together,” he says. “To make a good product, you need everyone from the top job to the bottom job doing their best.” Communication skills are also important, Turcotte says. “It’s especially important to communicate well when you’re changing shifts. Because our shifts are long, people on the outgoing shift really need to make sure that the new shift knows what’s going on.”

Because of the highly automated machinery in pulp and paper plants, few production jobs in this field require great physical strength. However, manual dexterity and a certain degree of mechanical aptitude are necessary for success in these jobs. Alertness, attention to detail, and good vision and hearing are also very important for the skilled workers who tend complicated control panels and check the quality of the product.

Exploring Paper Processing Worker Career

There are many books that explain the paper processing industry in greater detail than outlined here. Check your local library to see what is available. Performing a simple keyword search using an Internet search engine may also yield interesting information. Industry groups, such as the ones listed at the end of this article, may also have pamphlets or brochures about the industry.

If you live in a state that has forested areas, you might try to get a summer job on a logging crew that works for a paper company. Those who work for such crews can often transfer their knowledge and skills to jobs in the company’s plant. Summer jobs in plant maintenance and as machine helpers are also sometimes available.

You might also arrange to tour a pulp or paper plant and talk with some of the workers there. Often, employ­ees who have experience in the field can provide a full and detailed picture of what the work is like.

Finally, to get a feel for the mechanics of papermaking, you might buy a kit that teaches you how to make your own sheets of paper. These kits are available in many art shops and can provide valuable hands-on experience in learning about the properties and functions of paper.


Paper goods machine setters, operators, and tenders hold approximately 111,000 jobs. This employment is scat­tered throughout the United States and among a number of mills of different sizes. However, the three key pulp and paper manufacturers that are larger and employ sub­stantially more people than any of the others are Interna­tional Paper, Georgia-Pacific, and Kimberly-Clark.

Although their number is decreasing, there are still many smaller mills throughout the United States. The distribution of pulp and paper mills tends to be heaviest where there are a lot of logging and sawmill operations.

Starting Out

Persons who are interested in jobs in the paper processing industry should apply directly to any companies that they are interested in. Many pulp and paper companies have Web sites—and some post their job openings online.

Another method is to check local library reference materials for a listing of pulp and paper mills and manu­facturers operating in the United States and apply to the personnel departments of any that are promising.

Paper production workers usually begin as laborers or helpers and move up to more skilled jobs as they gain experience and skill. Competition for these more highly skilled jobs, which tend to pay better than comparable jobs, is intense.


Job progress in pulp and paper plants usually takes the form of promotion from routine, semiskilled jobs to positions requiring considerable technical skill and inde­pendent judgment, such as that of the paper-machine operator. However, as the papermaking process becomes more automated, even entry-level positions may require computer literacy and good math skills.

Traditionally, advancement in this industry has been limited to specific work areas. For example, a worker involved in the pulping stage of operations could not easily transfer to the papermaking stage without starting over at an entry-level position.

According to Mark Turcotte, advancement at both the Daishowa paper and pulp mills is a very structured, step-by-step process. “There is a very clearly defined progres­sion line,” he says. “Workers always start out at the entry level, then move into assistant operator’s positions to get training for the operator’s positions. People get into the line and work their way through the levels.”

After gaining several years’ experience, workers are often given the opportunity to advance within their area of expertise. Such positions as production supervisor, paper final inspector, paper testing supervisor, pulp plant supervisor, and control inspector are examples of advancement possibilities. Workers with exceptional comp etence and sup ervisory ability may become supervi­sors of plant sections or of an entire phase of operations. Also, production workers who continue their educations and receive degrees in science may obtain positions as laboratory and testing technicians or engineers.


A survey found the median annual income for paper goods machine operators and set-up operators was $34,259 in 2006. Most earned between $28,534 or less and $41,823 or more. According to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor, the median annual earnings of paper goods machine setters, operators, and tenders in 2005 were $31,160. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $19,160 and the highest paid 10 percent earned $45,820.

Workers in this industry almost always receive fringe benefits such as medical insurance and paid vacation and sick time.

Work Environment

Most pulp and paper plants operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the days are divided into three shifts. This is not the case, however, at Mark Turcotte’s company. “We have long shifts,” says Turcotte. “We run two 12-hour shifts in our plants.” Production workers with seniority are usually assigned to the day shift, but they also may have to work nights and weekends in certain situations.

These jobs, like many other production jobs, can con­sist of doing the same thing over and over again. Workers may have to battle tedium and boredom. In addition, some areas of the plant may be hot, humid, and noisy. The chemicals used in papermaking produce unpleasant odors. However safety regulations exist and, if followed, the chance of injury is minimal.

Few jobs in this field require heavy physical labor, although some may require that workers be on their feet for most of the day.

Paper Processing Worker Career Outlook

Even though the demand for paper products is increas­ing, employment in the pulp and paper industries is expected to show little growth or grow more slowly than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor. Perhaps the most important reason for the decreasing number of jobs is the trend toward com­puterization. As the industry has increasingly used tech­nology to run the pulp and papermaking process, the need for workers has decreased.

Fortunately, however, this factor has been offset some­what by an increase in the amount of paper products the United States is exporting to foreign markets. Because of the growing foreign market, as well as more relaxed international trade regulations, U.S. paper exports have grown substantially in the last decade. In addition, the domestic market for paper products is strong. The sale of newspapers and books has also grown. This increased demand for paper has counterbalanced, to a large degree, the trend toward computerization and the resulting need for fewer workers.

Employment prospects in this industry are better for college-educated individuals with scientific or technical backgrounds. Most of the jobs lost in the mechanization of the industry have been those that require semiskilled or skilled laborers. Opportunities in marketing may also be good, due to the expansion of the international paper mar­ket and the push for new product development. Finally, the growing demand for recycled paper products is creat­ing job opportunities in recycling collection and recycled paper distribution.

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