Our Future Workforce

Schools and Companies Tout Training Programs at PACK EXPO International

Our Future Workforce


Two college undergraduates approach a display created by high school students who are competing in the PACK Challenge, an effort by organizers at PACK EXPO International to raise awareness about the packaging industry and appeal to the newest generation of workers. The young men, who themselves are attending PACK EXPO in Chicago, ask 11th grader Jack Sadler how the competition in late October had been going for him and his two classmates from Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wisconsin.

Sadler confidently points out that his team took Overall Best in Show, an award that comes with a 6,000 prize. The high school, which is about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee, also won two first-place awards, as well as a second-place honor, Sadler says, as he picks up one of the awards sitting on his table.

“I didn’t know anything about the packaging industry, so I am glad that they invited us to this competition,” Sadler later says. “Since I became involved with this, I’ve done some research and I have been walking around to see all the exhibits, and I’ve learned a lot about this industry and would be glad to work in it.”

The six schools in the high school challenge, sponsored by PepsiCo, set up their displays and machinery in front of the West Building. It is one of the main exhibit halls at McCormick Place, which hosted the international expo. PMMI, which produces PACK EXPO, spread the entire expo over four buildings where workforce development was a central theme. 

Numerous presentations over the four days in late October dealt with labor—or the lack of it. The reasons have been clear for years. Even before the pandemic and its aftermath, finding workers has been a struggle. Unemployment rates continue to hover at or near historic lows, even as economists increasingly predict an economic downturn. Workforce training, recruitment, and retention issues remain top concerns for companies nationwide, including those in the flexible packaging industry.

Talk at the expo ranged from ways to attract workers by appealing to students as young as Sadler, getting older teens and midcareer workers interested in trade and technical schools, and creating partnerships with universities and colleges to promote packaging. And throughout PACK EXPO, PMMI brought in automation experts to demonstrate how machines can alleviate some of the workforce pressures now and in the future.

PMMI held a session discussing its joint study with the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) on “Sustainability and Operations—Transitioning to New Flexible Films,” where four major themes have come into focus: sustainability, remote access, predictive maintenance, and workforce. The study brings together original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), material suppliers, and consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) to probe those issues while seeking solutions.

PMMI notes in information pamphlets prepared just before the expo that an average of 800,000 manufacturing jobs are open in a typical month. 

In a preliminary survey conducted by PMMI, participants answered a series of questions relating to workforce issues and the current challenges they face with recruitment and retention. “These twin issues saw both CPGs and OEMs struggling to hire workers with the required skill sets, particularly skilled machine operators, technicians, and those familiar with complex equipment or digital automation technologies,” according to a PMMI report on those initial surveys. “… In addition to skills shortages and the availability of enough workers to cover production schedules, many representatives stated that retention of talent was a problem with their business.”

Offering Solutions

Mike Wilson’s job is to help manufacturers find solutions. Wilson is a technology and engineering instructor at Rich Township High School STEM Campus, a suburban Chicago high school that is one of the other five competitors in the PACK Challenge in addition to Waterford. His students took third place in the Overall Best in Show, as well as second place in one of the challenges.

Wilson has been teaching applied technology for 13 years, after an initial career as an automotive technician. The demand for workers leads companies to routinely approach his school, where the applied technology department enrolls about 300 students. He teaches about 60 of them in an upper-level class over the course of a year, an enrollment figure down from about 100 in a typical year before COVID-19, he says. The potential is excellent for his students to get good jobs, he adds, and students don’t need to go to college.

“We have companies coming to our shop all the time,” Wilson says. “We just had a company that is looking to donate a FANUC robot to us. They want to start coming in once a week to help train the kids and start an internship program right then and there. And they are even willing to pay for the kids to go to college—if they want to attend college—or just stay in the company, either way.”

He finds that companies are in desperate need of students who have an aptitude, understand the importance of safety, and know how to take measurements but who also know how to be good employees.

“It’s what we used to call the soft skills—the ability to be able to talk to people, to engage with people and to look them in the eye, and to show up on time and have a good work ethic,” Wilson says. “Those are the things that all the companies say they struggle with—just finding good functioning citizens to be a part of their companies. And they need people with problem-solving skills.”

He points to one of his students, 10th grader Roman Smith, who helped put the school’s project together.

“He can repair everything on a machine, but he can speak to strangers and give presentations,” Wilson says, adding that the competition in Chicago helped draw those skills out of Smith. “Two days ago, he couldn’t do that because he wasn’t comfortable talking to someone. It amazes me how far they have come.”

Smith says the school placed him in an introduction to engineering class this year.

“That really sparked an interest, so when I heard about the PACK Challenge, I decided to join it,” says Smith, who adds he may want to become an architect or go to culinary school. After his exposure to packaging through the competition, manufacturing is now on his radar, especially after all the effort he put into the challenge. “I have been working weekends and after school on this,” he says.

One of his teammates, senior Ivan Sanchez, says college doesn’t necessarily interest him, partly because it is expensive, and he has learned he can have a career in manufacturing.

“I am good with computers. I am good at building. I helped build this machine,” Sanchez says, pointing to his school’s contest entry. “A lot of companies have come up to talk to us about good jobs in manufacturing. With those opportunities, I have to look into them. College might not be my route.”

Deborah Joling understands that students—but more importantly their parents—often don’t see the vast opportunities available in manufacturing. Joling is a new student specialist at Gateway Technical College based in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She sits behind a booth on the other side of the massive West Building at McCormick Place, where rows of booths featuring colleges, universities, and technical schools have been set up under a huge banner that reads “Workforce Development.”

Although manufacturing jobs offer good pay and benefits, students may not think about those positions for a career, she says. Parents often are an obstacle because they perceive manufacturing as a dirty industry or a dead-end job when the truth is the opposite, she says.

The schools that have booths in the Workforce Development section include Clemson University, Michigan State University (MSU), Polytechnique Montreal, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Rutgers University, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin-Stout, and Virginia Tech. But the sec-tion also includes Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, Northwood Technical College in Wisconsin, and Richard J. Daley College of the City Colleges of Chicago. PMMI has a booth there, too, because it offers workforce training through its PMMI U programs that help employers train current and future workforces.

MSU was one of the universities that was part of a featured presentation during the expo. Matthew Daum, director of the School of Packaging in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, joined Mike Schmitt, Amcor executive vice president, for a closer look at Amcor’s $10.8 million investment in the school. At the time of the announcement this past year, Amcor said the investment showed the company’s commitment to supporting the next generation of workers.

Universities increasingly have been working with flexible packaging companies to develop partnerships that foster innovation and research and development.

During a meeting with reporters at PACK EXPO, ProAmpac CEO Greg Tucker and Chief Commercial Officer Adam Grose mention their growing collaborations with Clemson, RIT, Rutgers, and Polytechnique Montreal. During PACK EXPO, ProAmpac announces its partnership with nonprofit Recon2, a spin-off company of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. The collaboration will support a patented technology quantifying recycled content in plastic products and packaging. 

The Future

Back at the PACK Challenge exhibit, Sadler is taking more questions from interested bystanders.

Earlier in the summer, each of the six teams—five of them from the Chicago area and Sadler’s school from Wisconsin—had been provided with kits containing some basic components necessary for building a marble filling machine in a mock production line, with the teams needing to design and build the rest of their machines. They then shipped their machines to the expo, where the entries were judged for several factors, including design, operator training, change-over, and sales and marketing. The competition tested the students’ engineering, manufacturing, and project management skills, PMMI says.

Sadler says he and his two teammates designed a triple-fill machine, as opposed to a single-fill machine.

One of the biggest challenges they faced was trying to get the marbles to evenly distribute out of the funnel of the machine and into bottles.

“It was a difficult task to do it fast and efficiently,” Sadler says. “We solved that problem by creating a vibration system that shakes them around. And we designed the funnel so it would equally distribute the marbles.”

Although the school assigned an adult mentor to the project, he says, his team didn’t need much assistance.

“We didn’t require his help as much as we thought we would, but it was still nice because he was out there for us if we needed help,” he says.

As an 11th grader, Sadler has been thinking about his future.

“I know I want to be a mechanical engineer,” he says, adding that the challenge appealed to that interest.

Adults he met at the expo suggested he seek out internships. Otherwise, he says, he is interested in attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

For now, he is savoring the wins.

“We’re very excited about this achievement,” he says.


Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.

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