For more than a year, FlexPack VOICE® has been profiling some of the colleges, universities, and schools that developed programs to train people for work in the packaging industry. In this issue, we talk to Charles Christensen, an instructor at Northwood Technical College in Wisconsin (northwoodtech.edu).
Its Automated Packaging Systems Technician program is focused on producing technicians prepared for careers in field service, industrial maintenance, and machine building/commissioning in the manufacturing industry.
FlexPack VOICE®: TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE PACKAGING PROGRAM.
Charles Christensen: Northwood Technical College, formerly known as WITC, is in northwestern Wisconsin covering 11 counties with four campus locations, three outreach centers, and a health education center. The Automated Packaging Systems Technician program is located on our New Richmond, Wisconsin, campus about an hour east of the greater Twin Cities metro area of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Consisting of 63 credits, the program utilizes hands-on learning and real packaging machinery from several manufacturers. The tech program is heavy on automation and programmable logic controllers (PLC). Students also study robotics, fluid power, AC/DC electricity, power transmission, machine rebuilding, print reading, electromechanical componentry, welding for mechanics, and machine tools. Applied interpersonal, technical math, and applied communication skills also are requirements for students. Program graduates are recruited by machine manufacturers for field service and assembly/test positions and by manufacturing plants for plant maintenance positions.
FPV: WHAT ARE THE KEY SKILLS EMPLOYERS ARE LOOKING FOR?
CC: With the rate at which technology is changing and the shortage of skilled workers, there is a heavy need for graduates with an understanding of PLC and automation in general. If a graduate is strong in mechanical skills, combined with a good understanding of electrical, pneumatics, and PLC, they will have endless opportunities for careers in the packaging industry. Effective communication skills are a must, especially in a field service position, as these technicians are often the single representative from their company arriving at a plant.
FPV: WHAT ABOUT FLEXIBLE PACKAGING?
CC: The program lab contains several wrappers and bag sealers. A major manufacturer of horizontal and vertical wrappers is just steps from our campus. They donated several packaging machines to our program over the years and offer internships to first-year students, often evolving into full-time employment after graduation. Most of our students are student members of the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP) Minnesota chapter. The IoPP offers many webinars and plant tours, and the focus recently has been on sustainability and flexible packaging. Participation is encouraged whenever possible.
FPV: WHAT ARE THE FUTURE CHALLENGES IN THE INDUSTRY?
CC: Automation technology is changing at a hyper pace. Employers will not only focus on what a potential employee knows during an interview but also what they think the employee can adapt to in five to 10 years. Robotics in manufacturing will continue to increase, and Northwood Tech graduates will need to enter the field well-prepared for current technology, along with the mindset that learning is a lifelong journey. Packaging material will continue to change. On one side, the focus will be on food safety, shelf life, and package integrity. On another side, the focus will be on source reduction, sustainability, and recycling. Packaging machinery will adapt to the changes. There will be challenges along the way, but these are great opportunities to improve our overall impact.
FPV: ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
CC: As instructors, we pride ourselves on offering hands-on experience, with real equipment that requires real tools as found in the industry. Feedback from employers has been very positive, and they are our best gauge as to the direction we take with our program. For a relatively low investment—less than $14,000 and two years of their time—Northwood Tech graduates enter very well-paying careers with advancement opportunities. Also, many companies will offer tuition reimbursement should they choose to further their education to a four-year degree or more.