Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Even the final frontier didn’t change Lauren Scallon’s mind. She rejected NASA for a pulp and paper mill that gets so loud she needs earplugs and where steel-toed boots are de rigueur.
Scallon, who earned a chemical engineering degree from Purdue University last year, said the allure of mission control at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center wasn’t lost on her. She just couldn’t pass up the chance to join International Paper Co. and get on a track that might lead to the executive suite.
“People dream of going to NASA forever,” the 24-year-old said from a quiet conference room at the mill near Orange, Texas, 112 miles (180 kilometers) east of Houston. “But having the fanfare job just wasn’t as important as having a future.”
That’s what International Paper Chief Executive Officer John Faraci likes to hear. The company’s goal is to have the share of women on its U.S. payroll more fairly represent the 51 percent of women in the general population. It’ll be a stretch: The workforce at the world’s largest maker of corrugated packaging is 77 percent male.
While Faraci’s a believer in gender equity, what’s driving him is a skilled-labor shortage and a boomer bubble that means International Paper will have to replace more than 50 percent of its plant operators and mechanics within 10 years.
“It’s a war for talent,” Faraci said. “If we can only compete for half the people that are on the planet, how are we going to get the best? You want to compete for everybody.”
Promoting women into roles traditionally held by men is a major front in Faraci’s war. Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller “Lean In,” which urges women to take greater career risks, is popular among up-and-coming managers, according to Anitra Collins, who runs the Orange mill. Faraci has led in-house discussion groups about the book.
The focus on female talent “is very, very important for the sustainability of the company, especially at this time when our retirement rate will be extremely high,” said Tommy Martin, 57, the operations manager at the plant in Orange, which makes specialized paper used in corrugated packaging for fruit and vegetable producers and makers of consumer products.
The average International Paper employee in the U.S. is more than 50. Manufacturers across the country are facing a “ticking biological clock” as their workforces age, according to ThomasNet.com, a provider of information on industrial product and services based in New York. And 81 percent of employers in a 2013 survey by the Manufacturing Leadership Council and Frost & Sullivan reported medium or high-level difficulty in finding qualified workers.
Women have made it to the top in manufacturing, with Mary Barra as CEO of General Motors Co., Marilyn Hewson holding that job at Lockheed Martin Corp. and Linda Massman running Clearwater Paper Corp.
At International Paper, three women were among the five highest-paid executives in 2012, the last year for which data are available. That put the Memphis, Tennessee-based company in a small club in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, where four companies had three women in the top best-paid jobs in 2012 or its fiscal equivalent, according data compiled by Bloomberg.
Nationwide, more than two-thirds of the more than 12 million people employed in manufacturing are male, according to a report by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.
At 27 percent, women’s share of manufacturing employment is the lowest since 1971, according to the report. They account for 17 percent of board seats at manufacturers, 12 percent of executive officers and six percent of chief executives.
International Paper focuses on recruiting potential managers before they graduate. The 11-year-old Reach program -- for Recruit Engage Align College Hires -- has helped the company become better known among engineering students, Collins said. The proportion of female engineers applying for positions was 34.5 percent last year, up from 26 percent in 2011.
Reach is a powerful tool in overcoming the perception that high-quality career opportunities for women in manufacturing are rare, pay is low and work environments are unpleasant, said Scallon, who spends most of her time in Orange in front of a computer.
“I’ve had friends who’ve said, ‘I don’t want to work in this place because I don’t get to wear a skirt or girly clothes,’” she said, in steel-toed boots and green polo shirt under a fluorescent safety vest. “It’s also intimidating because this is traditionally a men’s world.”
Shares of International Paper jumped 23 percent in 2013, the fifth straight year of gains. They fell 0.3 percent to $45.94 at 12:04 p.m in New York today.
Scallon said she turned down NASA after working for two semesters and two summers at the agency, where she was involved in evaluating parachute fabric, analyzing Martian meteorites for signs of life, exploring for water on the moon and developing processes for recycling astronauts’ urine on the International Space Station.
What she does in Orange might sound humdrum by comparison: She helps manage inventory as a project-improvement engineer in the finished-products section. But Scallon said that for her it’s light-years more interesting.
“I really like manufacturing and that fast-paced environment and being able to fix things when they need fixing,” she said. What’s more, “I felt there would be a lot of opportunity for growth a lot faster at International Paper.”
It didn’t hurt that the company found a job at the mill for her husband, Nathan, a mechanical engineer. They met at NASA, where he was a contractor, and married in October in a Houston suburb. “I just felt they really cared for me,” Scallon said.
Through Reach, candidates interview with senior managers like Collins, the head of the Orange mill. She joined the company in 1991 after earning a chemical engineering degree from Louisiana State University.
“From where I sat, IP was giving its engineers much more responsibility sooner in their careers, and that was a big draw for me,” said Collins, 45.
She started out at a mill in her hometown of Mansfield, Louisiana, before moving to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and in 2006 became the first woman to run the plant there. She’s been chief in Orange since 2012.
One early priority was to improve safety and boost equipment’s reliability in line with global standards at International Paper, which acquired the mill in its $4.3 billion purchase of Temple-Inland Inc. That put her at odds with some maintenance managers who she said were focused only on repairs rather than on preventing lost-time failures.
“They were rewarded like Superman who comes in when a machine is down and spends an inordinate number of hours to get it running again,” she said, adding that some of those men of steel are no longer among the mill’s 405 workers. “We don’t typically fire people,” she said. “They fire themselves.”
Tommy Joseph, senior vice president of manufacturing, technology, environmental health and safety and sustainability, said Collins was an archetype in a male-dominated arena.
“What makes Anitra strong is her resolve and managerial courage to stand firm in a heavy manufacturing environment where most of her subordinates and peers are men,” he said.
Early on, Collins said, she didn’t see herself as a boss. “Women hesitate sometimes,” she said. “Maybe for work-life-balance reasons, or just because women are such strong supporters, we opt for support roles. Those are roles that we naturally are drawn to.”
She credits the Women in IP mentoring program for helping to change her view, and the company’s emphasis on encouraging women to overcome a tendency to eliminate themselves from competitions.
“International Paper is not waiting around for people to step forward and say ‘I want a leadership position,’’ said Annette Ford, the environmental, safety and health manager in Orange. ‘‘We know that men are more likely to step forward.’’
One of Collins’ sages is Chief Financial Officer Carol Roberts, who was herself initially reluctant to accept the job she holds at the company, which had $27.8 billion in 2012 sales.
‘‘I remember the conversation,’’ Farci said. ‘‘She said ‘I’m not sure I want to do this and I’m not sure I can do this.’ I said, ‘You have to decide whether you want to do it. I know you can do it, even though you’ve never had a finance job.’”
Roberts, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Yale University, became International Paper’s first woman mill manager at 31. Institutional Investor magazine named her the paper-and-packaging industry’s best CFO in the U.S. for two years in a row. She’s among the candidates to succeed Faraci, 63, when he retires in 2015.
“If John had listened to me, I wouldn’t be here,” Roberts, 54, said. “That’s the process here. We listen to people, but we also challenge them.”
Roberts said some male workers at her first International Paper mill job in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981 took bets on how long she would last. “The median was two weeks,” she said. “Eight years later I left that paper mill as superintendent.”
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