Georgia-Pacific’s Wauna paper mill, which turns 50 this year, remains the largest single employer in Clatsop County, with more than 800 employees. More than 700 of those are hourly employees in the United Steelworkers Union Local 1097.
“It’s not my dad’s paper mill,” said Kristi Ward, a spokeswoman for Wauna mill who started as an intern and whose father worked at the mill in the 1960s. “We have equipment that’s 50 years old, but we’re constantly updating our equipment and our processes.”
Georgia-Pacific college recruiters are also combing colleges, and Ward said the Wauna mill now employs around 90 engineers who help keep the mill turning out tissues and toilet paper.
If you would have told him he’d be working at a paper mill, said Paul Lyon, he would have said you were crazy.
“I didn’t even know this place existed,” said Lyon, a 34-year-old electrical engineering graduate from Oregon State University and former U.S. Marine recruited by Georgia-Pacific at a job fair two years ago and with Wauna.
Lyon handles the scheduled down times Wauna holds to make sure its machines stay in good condition, while troubleshooting issues as they pop up. In his office, Lyon keeps paper binders on each of Wauna’s paper machines at the ready.
“I’ll have a job pop onto my screen,” and I’ll walk down there.
If Lyon is on the hardware side of keeping Wauna’s machines running, he said, Michelle Machinal is on the software side.
Connecting computer screens to paper machines
Wauna Mill keeps control rooms in every paper machine. Workers monitor every aspect of the multimillion-dollar machines 24-7.
Allowing them to automate actions on the machines from the control room are process control engineers like 26-year-old Machinal who makes sure the software connects with the hardware.
“I used to do research internships,” said Machinal, a chemical engineering major from the University of Idaho recruited by Wauna four years ago. “This was my first time in a mill.”
Machinal programs many of the actions operators can start from a control room, such as starting and stopping machines and adding chemicals in the papermaking process.
Getting millworkers the parts they need is 26-year-old Ben Davidson job, he works as a storeroom manager at Wauna Mill.
“I see myself as an internal store,” said Davidson. He manages millions of dollars worth of inventory, about 1,400 categories of items from nuts and bolts that can rest on his finger tip to nearly 20-ton vacuum pumps shipped in on their own flatbed trucks and moved around the mill by crane.
Since working at the United Postal Service, Davidson said his working career has had a bent toward supply chains. He went to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he studied supply chains and was eventually recruited at a job fair by Georgia-Pacific.
“The biggest thing about a supply chain is operating efficiently,” said Davidson. “It’s not that I’m lazy; it makes things easier.”
Davidson sources Wauna’s inventory from thousands of different vendors, which Ward said is part of how the mill indirectly creates jobs. The mill also has a fabrication shop, where it machines and welds many of its own parts.
Georgia-Pacific looks for entrepreneurial employees able to solve problems independently, said Davidson, and provides ample opportunity to move up, which is part of what interested him in joining the company.
Making sure Wauna’s operations don’t adversely impact the environment are a team of several environmental engineers, including 23-year-old Hayley Moen, who focuses on water and solid waste. Moen, along with third-party testers brought in twice a year, monitors about 15 ground wells surrounding Wauna’s 1,200 acre campus.
“We’ve never had any hits for groundwater,” said Moen. “It’s always been clean.”
Wauna used to have chemical engineers working on environmental issues, Ward said, but specific environmental engineers like Moen are more recent. Moen said her degree itself is new.
While monitoring environmental impacts, Moen said she is hoping to make her mark with the company by helping develop new uses for its byproducts.
Wauna used to have several landfills, Ward said, but cut them down to one by using the pulping residuals it creates for fuel, fired in a turbine owned by the mill’s power supplier, Clatskanie People’s Utility District.
“We have the pulping residuals being made into energy, then I manage the ash,” said Moen, adding the ash and other non-particulate matter going into landfills is nontoxic. The mill contracts with specific companies for disposing of toxic and other hazardous materials.