PORTLAND, Maine — Researchers were puzzled when they found most of a group of people laid off in 2011 from Verso’s Bucksport mill considered the job loss “generally good” for them and their families.

Those findings are part of a book published this year called “Surviving Job Loss: Papermakers in Maine and Minnesota,” in which writers Kenneth Root and Rosmarie Park explore how downsizing in the paper industry, in general, plays out for U.S. paper mill employees.

Maine versus Minnesota

The book focuses on layoffs at Verso’s Bucksport and Sartell, Minnesota, mills in 2011, then Sartell’s later closure in 2012.

The results of their survey revealed a wide discrepancy in sentiment about job loss between employees at the closing Sartell mill and those in Bucksport, where the workforce was being cut by about 151 from a total of about 700 employees.

The mills were in far different circumstances at the time, with the Sartell mill prompted to close by a fatal explosion on site in 2012. Those surveys reflect not only that difference but how millworkers of different ages perceive their job prospects after the cutbacks.

At the time, the now shuttered Bucksport mill’s prospects looked better, and many employees took the company’s offer of early retirement, which was not offered in Sartell.

“While Bucksport workers were aware of difficulties in the paper industry, they might have thought the industry difficulties would bypass them, if for no other reason than that Verso had recently committed $40 million in modernization and expansion at their mill,” they wrote. “In essence, while their mill was safe, they were out of a job. No comparable corporate investment had been recently made, or proposed, at Sartell.”

The book acknowledges the 2014 announcement that Bucksport would close but focuses on the 2011 layoffs in studying how job loss affected the paper mill employees, many of whom were nearing the end of their careers, with an average age of 56.

About 41 percent of those Bucksport employees said the job loss had improved their mental and emotional health, compared with 28 percent who said it was harmful and 31 percent who cited no impact.

Those figures came from surveys completed by 67 of the former Bucksport mill employees and 96 people laid off in two separate groups at the Sartell mill.

Those surveys quantify the feelings and worries of employees in the industry hit hard by foreign competition that has either put U.S. mills out of business or forced them, like other manufacturers, to become leaner.

After buying larger coated paper competitor NewPage and trying to build a profitable business, Verso buckled to a pile of debt and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January.

National trend

Those financial troubles are part of a longer trend. The writers said more than 100 mills have closed nationwide since 2000, according figures from the Center for Paper Business and Industry Studies at Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, they wrote, there is not much academic research around that shift, which prompted their work.

“The paper industry has been in transition for many years and continues to undergo variable product demand, ownership change, international expansion, and reductions in paper machines. These factors have exacerbated downsizings and brought on permanent mill closures, creating displacement,” they wrote. “Despite this, there has been little research on dislocation among paper mill workers.”

The surveys looked at how different groups of employees reacted to the change, finding that younger workers were more likely to think they needed new skills or training in order to find a new job. That group did not act on that belief, however. In the case of Bucksport, those younger workers were less likely to have attended a training or educational program.

The makeup of the regional economy also had an impact on how difficult finding new work was, as well.

“Changes in the paper industry, exacerbated by a slow economic recovery, meant that finding comparable local employment would be difficult,” they wrote. “This constituted the situation in Bucksport for sure, whereas the St. Cloud [Minnesota] metropolitan area offered better options for work opportunities outside the Verso mill.”

Midlife career changes

The book notes changing careers will continue to be a challenge for paper industry workers, particularly older workers, as manufacturers continue to contract.

In November, Beau Sibley, 49, told the Bangor Daily News about his enrollment in culinary school to find a new career, where Sibley said he’d “have to start at the bottom and work up.”

As the U.S. paper industry continues to feel the pinch of global competition, Root and Park offer six suggestions for communities and employers that could make the transition into new careers easier:

— Stagger layoffs or have a flexible release date, so not all employees are re-entering the job market all at once.

— Provide career counseling, financial planning help and help navigating unemployment benefits and other programs.

— Extend the length of time from the closure announcement to the actual layoff date beyond the required 60 days.

— Involve employees in considering ways to improve the business and avoid a closure.

On the last point, they note that, in its 2014 closure, Verso did not involve workers in such discussions or “problem solving, possibly because the company may have been more interested in closing the mill,” in order to reduce capacity in the coated paper that makes up most of the business.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.