You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, we would never want you to! We stay connected to our students, faculty, alumni, company members and industry leaders and professionals to create an ever-expanding network bursting with individuals who want to support UMPPF engineering students.
These people have either been on their engineering journey and can share their college or career experiences, or they are also just starting their undergrad engineering education and can become a powerful support system along the way.
Here’s our conversation with Julie Gannon who works on the Innovation Team at WestRock, leading Product Development, Analytical Services and Pilot Plant Operations.
UMPPF: Julie, we appreciate you talking engineering with us! Where are you currently working and what has your career trajectory been since graduating?
JULIE: I am currently at WestRock on the Innovation team, leading Product Development, Analytical Services and Pilot Plant Operations. I began my career at Mead Paper in Rumford, Maine, as a process engineer fresh out of UMaine! After seven years of operations experience and product development work, I took a position as the energy buyer for MeadWestvaco (MWV).
I had no energy experience or procurement experience; however, I was excited to try something new and move to a new location. My family and I transferred to Richmond, Virginia, and I began working in the procurement group where I stayed for another seven years exiting as raw materials and energy manager.
I was offered an opportunity to move into a new space for MWV, innovation project management. I spent the next several years managing key initiatives for our research and development (R&D) teams and transitioned to the R&D organization at the merger between MWV and RockTenn. I became director of analytical services in our pilot plant operations and have since included our mill’s product development teams, which is key to aligning our innovation agenda to the execution in our paper mills.
UMPPF: It seems like you’ve had a thriving engineering career so far! What was it like to go out into the field on your own after graduation?
JULIE: Being a young woman in a paper mill had its challenges; however, understanding how to leverage my creative viewpoint and perspectives has made it possible for me to find my unique voice and contribute to the conversation.
UMPPF: We try to instill that in UMPPF students too, that their creativity and different perspectives can be one of their assets. How did UMPPF prepare you for the real world?
JULIE: UMPPF provided a safe place to operate in. Always knowing that the team behind the Foundation was ready to help at any point along the way, whether it be co-op/job opportunities or how to handle a challenging coworker, there was someone that would listen and guide me during those first years. The culture at UMPPF resonated with me and I have taken that supportive and collaborative leadership with me throughout my career.
UMPPF: Brilliant, we love to hear that! Has anything in the industry surprised you since graduating?
JULIE: Technology has surpassed anything I would have dreamt of when I graduated in 1997. When I started in the paper mill, we were still using handwritten logs and when I received a pager, I thought how cool it was that someone could always find you. Now I wish I could get “lost” more often!
To look back now and be told that someday we would have high tech camera systems and quality scanners, warehouses full of unmanned vehicles, and everyone with an infinite amount of information at their fingertips—it would have been hard to believe.
UMPPF: Exactly, the industry is so high-tech and it evolves constantly. That’s a perception that some people have of the paper industry, that it’s old and outdated. What do you think are common misconceptions about the industry?
JULIE: The most common misconception is that our industry is not sustainable. You hear “You cut down trees!” and “We throw away packaging,” however, we have invested in technological advances to reduce water consumption, improve air quality, and have managed our forest resources diligently.
We are the only industry that truly captures and recycles their material effectively, running operations that rely on 100% recycled paperboard. We still have work to do, but plastics aren’t anywhere near us and yet they market themselves as recyclable.
We, as an industry, need to work together to forward our sustainability initiatives and educate our customers and legislators.
UMPPF: Agreed, and especially with the next generations being highly aware of environmental concerns, it’s important that our industries not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Thinking of being a student, what is one thing you wish you had taken advantage of in the program that you’d like to pass on to current students?
JULIE: Staying connected to the Foundation and my peers. Today that is much easier to do with social media, but I wish I had kept in touch and leveraged the network. Building a network is incredibly important in your career and your peers are the best first members in your circle. Come back to Paper Days and stay involved!
UMPPF: Yes, Paper Days is the best and most fun way to mingle and make lifelong connections, for sure. If your children, nieces, nephews, or any other special young people in your life were considering the UMPPF program, what would you share with them?
JULIE: Do it! The education and support provided by UMaine and the Pulp and Paper Foundation is second to none. I have enjoyed being a student, an alum, and now being able to drive the mission of the Foundation as part of WestRock.
UMPPF: We love that energy! Speaking of driving the mission forward, how would you recruit new students to the program?
JULIE: Young people want to be inspired. The industry really is an exciting place to differentiate in our spaces. We are sustainable, we want a diverse and creative workforce, we have to innovate for the future, and we need smart, fresh talent to challenge us!
UMPPF: Well, we certainly feel inspired now! Do you have advice for current students in the program?
JULIE: If things are feeling hard or overwhelming, reach out. You chose a demanding program and field, but also so rewarding! The industry has a lot of opportunities in so many areas and it takes time to find what feels right. Find a mentor, someone that you can reach out and share your experiences with honestly and that will have your back. Do not be afraid to try new things and new opportunities, you are more prepared than you think you are!
UMPPF: Wow, that’s wonderful and inspiring advice. What better note to end on. Thank you so much, Julie.
If this conversation got you thinking about an engineering degree, we’d be so happy to meet you! Reach out to Carrie and Jen at the UMPPF by visiting our contact page.