WATERVILLE, Maine (AP) - Despite a major decline over the past two decades, Maine's paper industry remains the largest manufacturing sector in the state. But pressures persist.
One perplexing question: Where will a new generation of paper workers come from?
According to Mike Barden of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, the industry will see 2,200 workers turn 63 within the next 10 years.
''If we are going to survive as an industry,'' said Glenn Saucier of Millinocket's Katahdin Paper, ''we better damn well make some good paper workers very quickly.''
Paper mill employment fell from 17,200 in 1990 to 10,200 in 2003, according to a study done for the Maine Future Forest Economy Project.
The drop has continued in the past four years, with the work force now standing at an estimated 7,000 workers, based on the latest information from the pulp and paper association.
When Saucier attended a meeting at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield last month, he was joined by seven other executives from the industry.
The college's Pulp and Paper Technology Program is the only program in the state that teaches the skills needed to become a machine operator or technician. The University of Maine has a Process Development Center that is part of a program aimed at developing engineers for the paper industry.
Together, the two programs are the only Maine source of qualified new workers for an industry whose work force is rapidly growing older, with an average age of 54.
And the number of graduates they are producing is not nearly enough to meet the coming demand, industry executives say.
Bob Barnes, 66, got a job at what is now Madison Paper Industries 32 years ago, and even though he loves the profession, the machine tender plans to retire in the next few years.
''I just appreciated being here,'' he said. ''I just loved it. It's been a super career for me.''
But the number of paper mills has dwindled, with only 11 active among nine companies.
Among the closures: the Kimberly-Clark mill in Winslow, Statler Tissue in Augusta, Gardiner Paperboard, Georgia-Pacific's Old Town Mill. Sappi closed its pulp operation in Westbrook in 1999.
Meanwhile, job cuts continue. Fraser Papers in Madawaska recently announced plans to shut down three paper machines and eliminate 135 positions.
Bill Cohen of Verso Paper, which has mills in Bucksport and Jay, acknowledges that the paper industry faces a labor challenge.
''It is harder to recruit, because of the perception that it is a dying industry,'' he said. ''That is one thing we have to overcome. We are not dying; we are continuing to reshape.''
Based on 2004 data, the industry accounted for 22 percent of total manufacturing wages in the state, according to the pulp and paper association. The group reports that the paper and allied products sector provides weekly wages averaging about $1,100, which outstrips the nearest competitor by about $300.