Stepping Up to Close the Skills Gap

By Mark S. Sutton, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, International Paper

October 27, 2016

Perkins Act reauthorization key to preparing workforce of tomorrow


As a leading U.S. manufacturer with 32,000 employees across the country, International Paper has a vested interest in growing America’s pipeline of skilled workers. It is clear that the manufacturing workforce of the 21st century demands prospective employees who possess advanced skills in math and science. The need is pressing — over the next decade, International Paper and other U.S. manufacturers may not have a sufficient supply of qualified job candidates to allow us to grow our operations. Left unaddressed, this skills gap poses serious risks for businesses, American workers and the entire economy.

Currently, International Paper faces challenges with hiring manufacturing operators and maintenance employees at our manufacturing operations. These positions serve as an integral part of our production and maintenance teams and require skills like assembling, installing, repairing and operating complex machinery.

Given these challenges, our leadership team made a strategic decision to seize this opportunity to reinvent our workforce for the future. As a worldwide leader in the pulp and paper industry and manufacturing, we have redesigned our recruitment, selection and employee development systems to address this situation. In particular, we launched our company-wide Global Manufacturing Training Initiative, which will aid in the transfer of knowledge from our veteran employees to those still early in their careers. Additionally, a number of our facilities have partnered with local community colleges and technical schools which will serve as a vital pipeline of skilled workers for years to come.

But re-energizing our internal systems alone will not solve the problem. Career and Technical Education (CTE) is one key to closing the skills gap. Promoting CTE as a viable path to professional success and engaging students in CTE programs in high school remain critical tools to prepare a strong workforce that will help companies like ours grow over the long term. We also need to make sure that CTE programs are aligned with real-time labor market data, so that programs are effectively training students for in-demand jobs.

That is why International Paper is stepping forward with the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to advocate enactment of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which promotes CTE in high school and post-secondary education programs.

Earlier this year, the three groups developed principles to guide the reauthorization of the Perkins Act. These included:

  • CTE must be relevant and meaningful for students.
  • Recipients of Perkins funding must be accountable for results.
  • The business community must be actively engaged in helping to inform and support CTE at the state, regional and local levels.
  • The Perkins Act must provide for state/local innovation and reward excellence.

The provisions of the Perkins Act bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support align closely with these principles. As a result, this legislation will help grow the pipeline of skilled job candidates ready to join our manufacturing team. Of particular note, the Perkins Act creates valuable partnerships among local businesses, economic development agencies and state and local workforce boards to ensure that federal funding is directed toward CTE programs that meet local workforce needs.

We applaud the U.S. House of Representatives for working in a bipartisan effort to move forward with this important investment in our workforce. We now urge the U.S. Senate, led by Chairman Lamar Alexander who represents International Paper’s headquarters and 2,800 employees in Tennessee, to act on this vital legislation as soon as possible. Congress should seize this opportunity to help prepare Americans for the jobs of today and tomorrow.