Wisconsin Paper Industry Optimistic A Decade After Great Recession, Study Finds

Research Finds Job Cuts Slowing, Capital Investment Returning

Stack emissions at Flambeau Paper Company
The paper mill operated near the Flambeau River in Park Falls since 1896. Now, the site is the home of a crypto-mining operation. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (CC BY-ND)

Workers and executives in Wisconsin’s paper industry say they’re optimistic about the future of the sector, according to a study released Monday by the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

The research, commissioned by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., found job cuts, mill closures and consolidations that characterized the decade after the Great Recession have slowed.

The industry may even have a shortage of skilled workers as longtime employees retire.

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WIST executive director Paul Fowler, who led the research, said the industry has benefited from the demand for cardboard used in packaging and shipping by online retailers.

He said another growth area is specialty paper.

“Things like food packaging, components for batteries for aerospace, for automotive — really specialized applications of outputs of Wisconsin’s paper mills,” he said.

Fowler said another positive sign is in the return of investment in facilities and equipment. Green Bay Packaging is constructing a new $500 million paper plant, the first new mill in Wisconsin in decades.

And he said while globalization and other external economic forces could pose challenges for Wisconsin producers, the state is better positioned than others to adapt as the industry changes. He pointed to the Midwest Paper Group reopening the former Appleton Coated paper mill as an example of the industry’s ability to adapt when needed.

“They’re moving from printing and writing grade (paper) into brown board, or container board,” he said. “That ability to respond to market, that idea that you can shift a culture and be somewhat nimble about it, is something which I think stands in good stead.”

Wisconsin employs the highest number of paper industry workers of any state, with more than 30,000 people and an estimated economic output of more than $18 billion.

Fowler said the mindset of the industry was best described to researchers by “a 30-year career professional, and he said only now does he feel comfortable recommending to his kids a career in the paper industry. He said a couple years ago he would not be doing that. Five years ago he certainly would not be doing that. But now he’s saying, ‘Look, get a qualification in paper science or chemical engineering, the paper industry is a great industry to be in.’”