Renewing Talent in the Packaging Industry

CHICAGO , April 10, 2014 () – Top-level succession planning gets a lot of attention at most companies, and many take very seriously the continual renewal of skills in their organizations. Successful renewal depends on a dependable supply of talented new industry participants. Many, but not all, of the cohort who entered the packaging industry in the early to mid-1970’s are moving on to new phases of their lives. Count me among the group continuing to work full time to an age well beyond that which, along with defined benefit retirement plans, was the promise of joining American industry at that time.

I just returned from a meeting of the industry advisory board for Clemson University’s Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences. I’ve had the privilege of being involved with the Packaging Science program at Clemson for about 20 years, having been ‘recruited’ to board by Packaging Hall of Fame member Dick Perdue from Cryovac.

A lot has changed, as happens in any institution, but a constant at Clemson, as well as at the other colleges and universities who offer degrees or specialized study in packaging, is a passion for and a commitment to educating and preparing new entrants into the industry. New entrants who come equipped with a solid background and understanding of the importance of packaging, the wide variety of solutions the industry offers, and a drive to help create the next steps in the evolution of the industry.

As was more common in my ‘day’, I entered via a different route, getting BS and MS degrees in chemical engineering. But after a stint as a summer intern at an American Can flexible packaging plant, I was hooked, and I targeted the industry and American Can as my top career choice. From my first day as a ‘permanent’ employee at their technical center in Wisconsin, I had great supervisors who helped me learn how to develop and apply my knowledge and skills to interesting and relevant problems, and that great early mentoring continues to make it easy for me to get engaged in new challenges.

What this has to do about talent renewal is just this: my hiring in 1973 was the first after a multi-year hiring freeze at the technical center, a freeze imposed in response to a poor economy. What followed was a flurry of hiring and training, to get the organization up to effective strength and to revitalize the business of innovation.

Similar hiring took place in manufacturing, sales and other support groups as the company worked to shift out of maintenance/survival mode and regain competitive momentum. Turning off the spigot quickly stops the flow, but unlike a water line, it takes longer than you expect or want to reestablish strong flow after the valve is reopened.

Entering a packaging education program after high school is a bit of a leap of faith, a belief that after about 5 years (mandatory coop experiences at Clemson extend the timeline beyond 4 years, but give students valuable real world experience), hard work and dedication will lead to one or more companies in this very specific industry ready to bring you into the fold.

A lot can and does change in those 5 years, but my strong belief is that what does not change is the need for companies to continue to renew their talent base. There are a lot of reasons that experienced and skilled people stop their active participation in the industry, some controllable, some not. The only thing we know for sure is that it will happen. And that they will leave behind gaps.

It’s been tough for college graduates lately across most all the disciplines, but we can only make an impact within our direct sphere of influence. It is crucial for the industry, companies, and individuals to commit and recommit to the long-term success and growth of packaging education.

There is a solid track record on which to build; I have in my mind an honor roll of companies and individuals who have made remarkable efforts to support these schools and programs. More need to get involved and experience the benefits of doing so; enlightened self-interest pays off in many ways.

Staying the course, and helping institutions renew and grow their capabilities to prepare energetic, motivated learners and leaders takes time, money and discipline. Including making hires for the company’s future when things aren’t as good as they could be.

Heading into better times and circumstances with the momentum these young people can help create sure beats trying to just get going while your competition accelerates away from you.

Timothy Bohrer is the owner of Pac Advantage Consulting

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