A pioneering spirit and the security of a large company – working with biofuels

Past connections to fossil resources made way for new inroads into renewable energy when Kaija Tikka, 33, dove into the world of biofuel production. The shift supervisor of the UPM Biofuels Lappeenranta biorefinery felt that this jump to the “greener side of the fence” was a natural progression.

“I see a future for this industry. I believe that renewable fuels, renewable energy and the principles of circular economy will become more and more popular in the future. This will provide jobs for many years to come. Even inside these walls it’s clear that the field of woodworking is changing, but also that woodworking will always be around in one form or another,” Tikka explains, referring to the mill building, which was used for producing wooden bobbins over 100 years ago.

In a professional sense, the commercial-scale biorefinery, the first of its kind, offers a fascinating front-row seat from which to observe the state-of-the-art production happening in this unique environment. In the background, the large historical building provides a secure setting for this pioneering spirit.

“There isn’t another refinery like this in the world yet. One fascinating factor of this job is the opportunity to work on something completely new. Although I haven’t been part of the crew from the very beginning, there is something new to learn almost every day. On the other hand, working for a large and established company provides a sense of security in the job market, which has been particularly unstable in recent times.”

The freedom of mobile shift work

Tikka’s radio-phone makes noise in the background as we chat. The afternoon workload is being organized. Soon, her pedometer will be measuring the amount of exercise that she does during the work day. Tikka is a chemical engineer, but she also has a Master’s degree in Physical Education. For an active person like her, the mobile nature of the job is one of her favourite aspects of it.

“My step count during a work day is quite high. My wellbeing at work is greatly increased just by getting outside and not being holed up in the office. However, the same rounds still have to be made when it’s –30 C and the wind is blowing in from Lake Saimaa. That also applies during the heat wave when it’s 30°C and I still have to wear a jacket, gloves, helmet and these light summer shoes,” she laughs, pointing at her safety shoes under the table as the burning sun beams in through the window.

There is no typical work day – and that’s what keeps her job interesting. In shift work, an unexpected situation can come up at 3:00 am.

“If everything goes well and the refinery operates smoothly, our basic routines are repeated every single day. On the other hand, the situation could change completely in the space of five minutes. That requires both good organizational skills and the ability to react rapidly on the part of the shift manager.”

Working in three 12-hour shifts brings a lot of freedom to Tikka’s life. Long rest periods make it possible for her to study while working. Currently, this powerful and professional woman is studying to become a vocational teacher.

Being a woman and a dancer in a male-dominated industry

Tikka has coached dancers for a long time and has noticed many similarities between the roles of a shift supervisor and a dance coach.

“A big part of this job is being able to direct people effectively. Right now, for example, commissioning the new mill expansion is a new challenge for everyone, and we have to face it as a team. People learn in different ways, but the whole team has to be on board, understand the process and work together. At work, the shift workers are my team, and just like a sports team, we have common goals that we need to achieve.”

What is it like to be a woman in an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated? Kaija’s answer is short and pithy.

“It hasn’t been an issue at all. We don’t divide people along the lines of gender here. I supervise six shift workers, both men and women. It could be that working in a male-dominated industry is more straightforward. Things are taken as they come and said as they are.”

Regardless of gender, important qualities for a biorefinery shift supervisor are the ability to organize and prioritize, being able to deal with interruptions and quick changes in circumstances, and letting things go. In addition, you’re dealing with multiple tasks concurrently, all on different time-scales; one task might take several days, while another is finished in half an hour. There are some tasks that you start but never get to see the end result of. On the other hand, you must be able to jump in straight away from the start of the shift change and continue from where the previous shift manager left off. Fast-tempo shift work as the co-ordinator of a good team is a perfect fit for Tikka.

“Working alone with my laptop isn’t for me. I need a job where I can work with other people and help to organize things, people and events,” Tikka concludes.