Competitive advantage

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Most college students consider themselves lucky to land an internship in the summer between semesters. But for engineering majors at the University of Maine, companies across the state are vying against each other to get the students to intern with them.

The future engineers have their pick of Maine businesses to intern for – from construction companies to chemical suppliers – but most end up spending their summers in the industry that’s considered the backbone of the state’s economy: paper.

For decades, Sappi Fine Paper has been one of the mills to host students throughout the year, giving them a place to live, a boost to their resumes, and, with wages starting at $19 per hour, a head start on paying back student loans.

Sappi recently increased the hourly wage by $5 in order to stay competitive with other companies in the state that offer internships, like Verso Paper, Katahdin Paper, and Lincoln Paper and Tissue, according to Allan LaBonty, coordinator of Sappi’s interns.

This summer, seven students, with hometowns from North Yarmouth to Nepal, are spending their days at the Westbrook paper mill getting experience in their field, as their supervisors take notes on the potential future employees.

Of the seven students, five chose to live in the former mill manager’s house, on Cumberland Street right by the mill.

Though for the most part, they spend their weekends at home or visiting friends, it’s a place where they can relax in front of a DVD or make themselves dinner – and maybe even get some face time with the mill’s new manager, Donna Cassese, who sleeps there on week nights.

LaBonty said most of the company’s new hires were once students in the program.

With the average age of Sappi employees at 54 years old, LaBonty said, the influx of retiring baby boomers is driving the high demand for young engineers to breathe new blood into the industry.

And while LaBonty said the students play an important role at the mill, the experience they get is essential for their careers.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” said Sappi spokeswoman Brooke Carey.

According to Dana Humphrey, dean of engineering at the University of Maine, 80 percent of students in the department complete an internship by the time they graduate.

“They’re vital for the students,” he said. “It’s an important part of our program.”

Jack Healy, executive director of the Pulp and Paper Foundation, which provides full-tuition scholarships to University of Maine engineering students, said graduates of the program get an average of four or five job offers immediately after college, with salaries up to $70,000.

“It’s a very strong program,” he said.

In order to receive a scholarship, the Pulp and Paper Foundation requires that students participate in an internship program. He said most companies won’t interview college graduates if they don’t have experience, and the students recognize that.

“We have solid industry experience that I think is really important,” said Sarah Muzzy, a rising sophomore from Portland.

But more than adding an important line to their resumes, the students discover a new enthusiasm for their chosen field.

The students said they’ve really gotten into the work they do, as they spout the vernacular of their industry, which sounded like a foreign language at first. It’s been exciting for them to see the product they help produce – release paper that is used to emboss patterns on everything from dashboards of cars to flooring – out in the world.

“I always knew this place was here, but I never knew what they do,” said Muzzy, who said she’s spotted the designs made by Sappi paper shopping for handbags and shoes.

Brendon Beote of North Yarmouth, who plays soccer, said he was excited to find out that the paper is used for the design of Nike’s most expensive cleats.

With jobs that range from processing data to taking samples of pulp, the students feel as though their work matters.

“All things that we’re learning here, we get to apply immediately and see how it plays out in the mill,” Muzzy said.

According to Healy, there’s an upward trend in the grades of students when they come back from an internship.

“It’s great for them to get out and start using what they’re learning,” he said.

For Megan Deering, a senior from Hollis who was set back because she switched from being an English major her freshman year, the program has given her a push to finish her degree.

“I found that I like working more than being a student,” she said.

Most of the interns said they’ll definitely consider Sappi when they’re looking for work after they graduate, which is good news for the Westbrook mill.

“We need these young minds to help us create new products and new innovations,” Carey said. “They’re helping us be viable and sustainable.”

Pat Nichols, a University of Maine engineering student, shows how he properly monitors the process of papermaking at Sappi Fine Paper in Westbrook, where he is a summer intern. Sappi Fine Paper mill is located in Westbrook on Cumberland Street. The mill is the world’s leading producer of coated fine paper and chemical cellulose. A computer used to monitor the process of paper making at the Sappi Mill in Westbrook.

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