This week I sat down with Brent Leonard, the Kraft Pulp Machine and Costumer Services Superintendent and Craig Douthwright, a Kraft Process Specialist, to talk with them about their experiences starting as students, (just like me), and working their way up to their current positions. Craig started at the mill in the spring of 2018 and worked as a student for 24 months up until graduation. He then began in the Technical Services Department (TSD) prior to obtaining a position as an Engineer in Training (EIT) for the Kraft Mill fiber line in the early months of 2022. Brent also started at the mill as a student about 5 years ago. Brent completed time in the TSD prior to working as the Paper Machine Process EIT and then finally moving to the position of Kraft Pulp Machine and Costumer Services Superintendent beginning a few months ago.
Let’s dive right into the questions. Here’s what I found out!
Where did you work before starting at the mill?
Craig poured concrete and laid bricks during the summers to pay for school as well as working at the arena as a Zamboni driver after high school and part time through college. He says that his experience gave him an appreciation for sitting at a desk instead of pouring concrete and cutting paving stones 12 hours a day. He admits though that the Zamboni driving was an awesome gig and, “sometimes I miss it still.” Brent worked multiple different jobs but primarily stayed at a golf course as a greenskeeper and part of the irrigation crew. He too agreed that it definitely “gives an appreciation to where you want to go in life, whether it’s digging holes and pouring concrete or using your education to further yourself.”
What do you think was the biggest advantage you gained from working here as a student?
“I think just getting integrated into how the operation works, we slowly got our toes wet in projects and really got an idea of how the day to day goes.” – Craig
Sometimes things can get crazy here at the mill and as a student you get to see firsthand how things work and how priorities can shift in an instant.
“The first aspect of it is when you are in classrooms and talk about the different unit operations, the scale and magnitude of heavy industrial settings is kind of lost in the paperwork. When you come here you can see how big things are and how loud and hot and smelly it can be. It gives you a lot of context for what you are doing in the classroom. Another eye opener was in school all the numbers and problems are very clean, and you work within the boundaries of the question, but when you get into industry, its messy. There’s all sorts of data, good and bad, and you have to work to try and determine what you need before you even start the problem. It really opens your problem-solving ability to more than just the application of theory.” - Brent
What surprised you the most in the transition from working as a student to a full-time employee?
As you would expect we discussed the increased workload and added roles and responsibilities, as well as starting to take work home a lot more and just thinking about the mill “all the time.” Full-time means more buy in to the mill as you want to see your projects and work succeed, it also means weekends spent on call and overall, more energy invested into the process.
“You’ll remote in at night sometimes and peek [at the mill operation to] see how everything’s running. […] As a student you do feel like a team member but once you’re full time, you are committed; for better or for worse.” – Craig
Can you tell me about a particularly memorable project that you’ve taken part in during your time here?
As Brent mentioned, transitioning from student to full time means you are able to work on more projects as you are committing to the mill long term and will be here long enough to see the impact that the effort you put in has on the mill. For Brent, the project that came to mind was commissioning a new dye system on Paper Machine 5 (PM5). The old system had been installed in the 1970’s and used a series of funnels and dosing pumps to mix the dye before it was sent to the paper machine. The problem with this system was that it plugged often and spilled dye everywhere, which obviously was a big environmental issue. When spills happened, operators had to go into the sump and pump out the dye which was also a big safety concern. The issues with the old system also caused off quality production which decreased revenue for the mill. The new dye system, once successfully installed, was not only safer and better for the environment, but also convenient for the operators to use and much more reliable causing off quality product to be reduced by as much as 500 tonnes a year.
For Craig, a memorable project was one from the very beginning of his full-time position. He says he was lucky enough to be pulled into a project with another mill in southern United States by someone who used to work at Resolute. This was where he learned some programming, python specifically, to assist in the projects taking place at the other mill. He had the opportunity to learn one on one with people who had gone to school for the work they were doing and remembers it as one of the most interesting projects he’s worked on thus far.
What do you enjoy most about working in the forestry industry?
“The sustainability aspect of it. Not only does it support good incomes for people in the community, directly and indirectly, but it’s also an industry that can be managed in a way so the resource doesn’t dry up. It provides good recreation opportunities for the community as well. All the bush roads that go up are maintained and plowed in the winters and cut in the summers for the forestry industry and then the community can enjoy them afterwards.” – Brent
We talked about how attitudes towards forestry have changed a lot. When we were younger – or even before I was born – plastic was all the rage, and everyone was saying to save paper and stop cutting down trees. However, after we started to see the consequences of all the plastics and more research was done on biodegradable products, we also began to see the gradual resurgence of the pulp and paper industry.
“Now that we have a better understanding of how the forests are managed and why it is a renewable resource, it really is an exciting industry to be a part of.” – Craig
What’s your favorite part of working at the mill?
“To me it’s how complicated it is. There are so many moving parts, and everything has to come together in order for the finished products to come out. There’s no way that if one link in the chain is broken that the rest of the system can happen. This also makes it difficult at times, but there’s an infinite number of challenges in the mill that you can work on. You’ll never be bored if you do it right.” – Brent
“Specific to my position, I’m happy I don’t have to manage any people, I only have to manage the process. We have a really good workforce here too. Everyone is relatively young, but we do have some older people that we are trying to get as much information out of before they retire. I feel like we are all learning together, there might be some hiccups along the way, but everyone has a common vision for where they want the mill to go. Everyone wants the mill to stay here for a long time. I appreciate coming in and having that culture around me.” – Craig
Is there anything you wish more people knew about the mill?
There’s a lot of misconceptions about how things are run now as opposed to how they were run in the past. You may hear people say that the mill stinks or that you shouldn’t go swimming in the river by the mill, but a lot of things have changed in the last 50 years and the truth now is much different.
“Everyone who works here, we aren’t thinking, hey let’s dump everything into the river and make money and leave. We live here, we fish the rivers, we go swimming in the lakes, we care just as much about what the mill is putting out as anyone who doesn’t work here. I want people to know everyone is just as concerned about the environment as they are. No one has ever intentionally spilled something or sent something to the river, in fact we want things to get better here, and that’s the attitude sitewide.” – Craig
“There are misconceptions in the community; that it’s a dangerous place to work, that it’s bad for the environment, and the chips that come from the bush are cut unsustainably. But it’s all managed sustainably in a way that builds the business, so that it lasts for the next 100 years.” – Brent
Do you have any advice for students just starting out in their field?
“No one expects you to know anything when you first start. Not even just as a student, but as you progress into further roles, just keep asking questions.” – Brent
“This always gets echoed everywhere but it really is true. Always ask questions. Have that confidence to ask the question, there’s no stupid questions. People have been here 15 years and still need to ask questions. Even if you think the question isn’t the smartest question, no one is going to remember it in 6 hours. Just ask it. You can waste a lot of time trying to figure it out on your own when you can just turn over and ask someone who knows.” – Craig
And while I wasn’t quite able to capture the entire interview in writing, everything Craig and Brent discussed really is true. The Kraft mill is an awesome place to work and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my summer here. Thank you, Craig and Brent, for taking some time out of your busy schedules to answer my questions, you guys nailed it. Really the only thing that’s left to be said is that you, (whoever you are reading this), should move to Thunder Bay and become a part of the forestry industry!