A team player and leader: Q&A with Jessica Charland Labonté, senior project engineer at Kruger Wayagamack Mill
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh
Name: Jessica Charland Labonté
Title: Senior project engineer
Employer: Kruger Wayagamack Mill
Location: Trois-Rivières, QC
Years in the industry: 14
Since Jessica Charland Labonté’s chance entry into the industry, she has taken up numerous challenges along the way and delivered the required results. A team player to her core, Labonté values the support she receives both professionally and personally to help her accomplish her goals.
Pulp & Paper Canada: When, how and why did you come to join the pulp and paper industry?
Jessica Charland Labonté: I joined the industry by chance. I completed my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2008, just in time to be looking for a job during a major financial crisis! I had handed out resumes to numerous companies and people, including one to a friend who had a friend that worked at the Kruger Wayagamack Coated Paper Mill.
When Kruger showed interest in hiring me, I jumped at the opportunity. Having grown up in Trois-Rivières, a city that used to be the world capital of newsprint, I knew the industry and I knew that once you gain experience in those mills, it opens a lot of doors…
What I didn’t know was that I would love it and that I wouldn’t want to consider working in any other industries.
P&PC: What has your learning curve been like in this industry?
JCL: It has been a steep one! Since I began working in the industry in the middle of a financial crisis, resources were limited, and expectations were high. My responsibilities were considerable, and I did make a lot of mistakes. But it is from mistakes that we learn the most. It allowed me to quickly feel that I was in control in any given situation.
I also had the chance to be guided by highly competent people that trusted me. They were always available to give me some advice and to help me during challenging projects.
P&PC: What is your current role and what is your day to day like in this role?
JCL: I manage the engineering department, and I still directly manage certain projects. I make sure that we have the best people to achieve the goals set forth by management. I supervise them to make sure that the projects are completed without delays or cost overrun.
I also do follow-ups with managers. I give them advice on the different options available.
My everyday life is far from being tedious and that is a part of my job that I love. There are some days when people come by my office one after the other to ask questions or to report on the advancement of a project. Other times, I do more administrative tasks, such as placing orders, or following up on budgets or schedules. I also go to the mill often, to gain precise understanding of processes and problems, to assess the feasibility of a project, to follow up on the progression of a job, to validate that a site is safe or to decide where a new piece of equipment or piping will be installed.
P&PC: What are some major projects that you have worked on? Any favourites?
JCL: I have overseen projects for which the costs ranged between $15,000 to many million dollars and I couldn’t tell you which one I preferred.
Among the most significant is the first one that I was put in charge of, after the short-notice departure of a colleague. The project was the replacement of a drying box on a coated paper machine, during which I learned the hard way that a project sold as turnkey is never turnkey…
Among the most rewarding were all the major projects that had a direct impact on the environmental performance of the mill, such as installing electrostatic precipitators that reduce the number of particles released into the atmosphere, the optimization of the biomass and recovery boilers and the recovery of contaminated steam and condenses that reduce live steam consumption and thus GHG emissions.
But no matter the project, what stays with me are the teams with whom I worked. The site supervisors, the mill workers, the engineering or industrial consultants, we all have the same goal: that the project succeeds! And this is only possible when we work as a team and stick together to find solutions. This is because things never, ever go as planned and you must sometimes go from plan B to plan E!
P&PC: What do you love the most about being part of the pulp and paper sector?
JCL: It’s an industry that keeps evolving and that knows how to adapt itself to ever-changing market needs. This enabled it to overcome the multiple crises it’s been through in the last century.
There are so many areas in just one mill and so many new projects that it’s impossible to fall into a routine. It is rewarding to see a project come to fruition on the production lines and to see mill employees happy that the project made their job easier or safer.
P&PC: What has it been like as a woman in this industry?
JCL: I never felt that being a woman in this industry has negatively impacted me.
Yes, as women, we may sometimes attract more attention and jokes have been made about it.But it would probably also have been the case if I had been a man who has uncommon characteristics.
I always felt that the people around me, in this field that is mostly male, considered me for the work I accomplished and not for my gender.
P&PC: Any anecdotes you would like to share about any moments in your career that stayed with you?
JCL: A moment that stayed with me is my pregnancy. Even though I wasn’t allowed to go in many sections of the mill, I was able to work through the whole nine months… and to finish installing and commissioning the electrostatic precipitator on the biomass boiler with the help of an entire team spread around me. That’s when I realized that a large belly wasn’t convenient in a mill. I would come back to my office to discover grease or dust marks on my belly because it had rubbed against something.
This period was also significant for my career since I was on maternal leave for a year. I apprehended my return. I was afraid I wouldn’t be up to the task anymore. But in the end, my return was smooth. I found my bearings rapidly and was again put in charge of many major projects. I am also lucky to enjoy great support at home, which makes work-family balance a whole lot easier.
P&PC: What do you see in your future in this industry?
JCL: I am very hopeful for the future! As I mentioned before, the industry weathered many storms, and it has a bright future. Short- and medium-term challenges will be linked to diminishing our environmental footprint while being always more efficient and productive.
P&PC: What advice do you have for women who want to build careers in this industry?
JCL: My advice to women who wish to join this industry is: don’t consider that you are different and have confidence in yourself. Most men will do the same.
After that, it is only a matter of respect. To succeed in this environment filled with challenges, you must learn how to surround yourself and to work as a team. This industry is full of qualified and passionate people that are ready to help you. If you respect the people around you, from the machine operator to the general manager, and you take the time to listen to them and to understand their reality, they will give back that respect and consideration to you a hundredfold.
This article is part of Pulp & Paper Canada, CFI and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series, an annual celebration of women in the industry. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtag: #WomeninForestry.
Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 7 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!