FAIRFIELD — With an increasing number of paper mill employees retiring out of the workforce, Kennebec Valley Community College hopes to school another generation in the traditional backbone of Maine’s production economy.

In an effort to meet the anticipated future demand for workers, the college is offering an introductory online course for free to 30 students next semester.

About 40 percent of the 7,300 member pulp and paper workforce will be 60 or older within 10 years, according to John Williams, Maine Pulp and Paper Association president, in a news release.

“To remain competitive, Maine mills must attract workers with the skills and knowledge to operate highly complex equipment and processes,” he said.

While the number of workers in the industry has declined considerably over the past 20 years, Williams said, the workforce has stabilized recently.

One part of the problem is that the workforce is reaching retirement age. The other part is that the jobs have become increasingly technical.

“These days, it’s really hard to get a job in one of our mills right out of high school, without some advanced training,” Williams said.

Many of the jobs, which Williams said pay an average of $64,000 per year, will likely be filled by students who complete coursework at the community college specifically designed for the pulp and paper industry.

College officials say they offer the only one-year certificate and two-year industry-specific applied science degree programs in the Northeast.

The course, beginning Jan. 21, prepares students for the nine technology courses needed for the college’s degree. Those who complete the course and apply for admission in the Pulp and Paper Program in the 2013 fall semester will have a reduced courseload as they work toward the degree.

During the online course, which runs to May, industry partners will provide two mill tours. The course also covers processes in pulp and paper mills and provide an overview of wood as it is harvested from the forest, processed in the mills, and shipped around the world.

The college will host an open house about the program and the online course at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, in Carter Hall on the campus.

Williams praised the program, calling it “a vital resource for providing the training needed for these new workers.”

Barbara Woodlee, president of the college, said she appreciated the support of the industry, which helped make the program possible.

Corporate partners for the program include UPM Madison in Madison, Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan and Verso Paper Corp. Androscoggin Mill in Jay.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]