Best in Class
By M. Diane McCormick
May 18, 2023
AICC continues to offer all of the education your teams need to grow and succeed
Now that the challenges of the past three years appear to be dimming to their pre-COVID roar, boxmakers have more breathing room to think strategically about how they educate and train their employees.
AICC and its Education Content Committee are keeping pace, building an intentional, vibrant curriculum in AICC’s free Packaging University courses while continually updating an array of educational offerings for relevance to today’s audiences.
Additional online resources, such as webinars, white papers, and industry statistics, are assembled on the new AICC NOW hub for easy search and access. AICC’s intent is to engage members through high-quality learning experiences that suit every employee in every position. “We all enjoy the relationships, the networking, and learning from each other through AICC, but that educational piece is more important than ever before,” says Gary Brewer, president of Package Crafters and chairman of the Education Content Committee.
No matter what a boxmaker needs educationally, AICC delivers a comprehensive package designed to answer pressing questions and train teams to serve as solutions providers across all fronts of the business.
Packaging University Evolves
Around 2013, then-AICC Education Content Committee Chairman Tony Schleich led the blending of AICC’s existing training and webinars into virtual education. It was the beginning of Packaging University (then called the Packaging School), starting with courses addressing fundamental training needs in corrugated basics and safety basics.
“We noticed when we went to a company that what most people were learning was ‘whispering down the line,’” says Taryn Pyle, AICC’s director of education and talent development. “We wanted to create courses that everybody could use and learn the same thing.”
Since then, the AICC Board has charged staff with creating up to 10 new courses a year, says Jana Harris, AICC chairwoman, past Education Content Committee chair, and Harris Packaging and American Carton Co. president. Today, Packaging University offers more than 100 courses grouped by channels—corrugated history and basics, customer service, finance, human resources, leadership, maintenance, packaging production, process improvement, resources, safety, and sales, plus timely specialty courses on the latest technology from the education investors whose sponsorship helps keep Packaging University free for AICC members.
“We do some brainstorming within our companies on the board but also ask members, ‘What do you want courses on?’” says Harris. “Over the past 10 years or so, Packaging University has blossomed. The staff and [AICC] Board really listen to our membership and the unique courses they need for employees.”
In the early years, courses were developed with subject matter experts hired for their expertise. As topics expanded, Scott Ellis, Ed.D., of Working Well, joined to find the experts and give educational structure to their content. With his background in leadership development and process improvements in the printing and packaging industries, Ellis knows the challenges boxmakers encounter and the people who can help resolve them.
Classes are stocked with video and 10- or 15-minute modules, plus an “Are you paying attention?” quiz. At least one application exercise in most courses instructs learners to stop, go into the plant, and find an example of the lesson—perhaps decoding a roll label or finding examples of corrugated board combinations. “We try to make it immediately applicable so people aren’t speeding through the course to just go out and get a certificate,” says Ellis.
Unique to AICC, all courses are open to all employees at member companies. Shared participation in courses helps build shared understanding and promote problem-solving, says Ellis. For instance, a supervisor and employee on the precipice of an escalating conflict can watch a Communications for Coaches course and discuss their takeaways, which lead to better understanding.
The shared experience can also reinforce uniform procedures among line teams, perhaps instilling more consistent ink management procedures. It’s about better buy-in through understanding. “Any time you have a problem, you’re looking for an answer to implement across the board for your fellow employees,” says Brewer. “You see five different people managing ink five different ways, and you’re after a common goal. If you have a unified training approach, that certainly helps.”
Many member companies are building their education strategies around Packaging University, utilizing the training to build employee skills. Some are making participation in relevant courses prerequisites for their jobs.
To support those efforts, AICC is preparing syllabuses for each department. The resulting training tracks can help employers teach their new hires—including the many hired from outside the industry due to the tight job market—the basics in logical order. “Manufacturing companies want to get these people up and running very quickly, but they also want to make sure they know the safety basics and then learn the things they need to know in their departments,” says Pyle.
Now, at the request of Mexico-based members, more than 20 courses are available in custom-translated Spanish, with more to come. “Particularly in Mexico, they’re extremely hungry for knowledge,” says Brewer. “The [number] of courses we’ve translated into Spanish is an absolute home run. It’s a very powerful bang for the buck.”
In September 2022, AICC launched AICC NOW (NOW.AICCbox.org), a one-stop shop for online educational content. Through a single search on one topic, visitors can find all of AICC’s related webinars, videos, podcasts, interviews, white papers, and expert advice.
While Packaging University covers the evergreen topics of boxmaking, AICC webinars, found on AICC NOW, have the agility to address timely topics and concerns. “If we hear of something going on, we do our best to get a webinar up and running quickly,” says Pyle.
Brewer remembers when digital printing was surging, and the AICC Board and Education Committee pushed hard to develop educational offerings. The webinars provide perspective amid changing circumstances, says Brewer. One of the most popular webinars currently is about recession-proofing your business.
“What are the people yearning for?” says Brewer. “What’s the latest trend? We always try to capture that in the webinar—whatever we can do to keep people engaged.”
The pay-to-view webinars now number about 150. They are typically one-hour explorations of hot topics in boxmaking, led by experts. In a churning business environment, popular webinars have helped AICC members stay anchored by learning to adapt to online sales, create machine parts manuals, recognize multigenerational learning styles, and maintain plant safety in legalized-marijuana states, says Pyle.
With AICC’s All Access Pass (www.AICCbox.org/Pass), annual subscribers and all their employees have unlimited viewership of all current and past webinars. “Our staff knows that if any webinar comes up that they want to watch, they have access to that at any time,” says Harris. “When things slow down, we highly encourage our employees to take the time and take some courses.”
A Learning Medley
Sometimes, a manufacturer has a question a webinar or Packaging University course doesn’t answer, or a team needs a quick reminder of the basics.
AICC NOW offers resources for those moments and other unique situations:
- Ask the Experts. Three consultants contracted by AICC are available to answer questions, emailed or by phone, about folding carton, corrugated, or safety. Answers go into an archive for retrieval later by boxmakers facing similar challenges.
- One Point Lessons. Members asked for lessons in bite-size chunks, so AICC created two- to three-minute videos addressing urgent priorities, such as the safety hazards of wearing hoodies, or the importance of accuracy in production codes. While some employers like to show them on a loop in break rooms, Ellis suggests using them situationally, to avoid turning them into easily ignored background noise.
- Podcasts. AICC’s popular monthly Breaking Down Boxes podcast offers conversations and insights from successful entrepreneurs in packaging—from Chad Wagner of Peachtree Packaging on his “young, dumb, and fearless” dive into the industry, to Harris’ “twisty road to the top.” The new AICC Update podcast provides a weekly five-minute peek into upcoming events and AICC benefits.
- Statistics and white papers. Research into marketing and packaging reveals current and coming trends, customer expectations, and the advantages of different packaging materials. A one-minute read can open new avenues in outreach and sales through lessons in such topics as the role of secondary packaging in in-store marketing or label materials on craft beer purchases.
The spectrum of educational materials, from formal to bite-size, allows AICC members to customize educational approaches that resonate with each employee. Adapting to learning styles helps solve hiring and retention challenges, especially in the production environment where younger workers are taking the place of older employees, Brewer says.
“We promote based on performance, and your performance includes your desire to learn, your desire to take in this educational content. That’s important to me because it says you’re here for more than just compensation. You want to learn to be the best you can be.”
AICC membership and its conferences offer invaluable opportunities for networking, but for true, guided peer-to-peer interaction, AICC offers advisory groups for CEOs, emerging leaders, leaders, production leaders, department managers, sales managers, and salespeople seeking professional development. “That’s like your own group of mentors,” says Pyle. “They’re all peers and talking about the same challenges you have and getting solutions.”
Group rosters are carefully crafted based on region, potential conflicts, and company size. Facilitators keep the groups on task, leading guided discussions and plant tours, for peeks into daily operations or emerging technologies. “For me, personally, it has been an off-the-chart offering,” says Brewer. “I can’t tell you how beneficial it’s been. A lot of us are family businesses. A lot of us have the same issues to discuss, and we are able to celebrate each other’s successes.”
At Harris Packaging, Jana Harris’ daughter, nephew, and a structural design lead who has risen through the ranks are eager to learn through the Emerging Leaders group, led by Pyle. “They’ve formed quite a strong group, and it’s encouraging to see how the next generation is falling in love with corrugated and really wants to continue learning as much as they can,” Harris says.
Pyle is also developing and seeking members for a women’s leadership group, suitable for production managers or women moving up in the family business. “Women in our industry are treated very well, but sometimes, we see things differently,” she says. “This is for conversations about managing production and managing family. It’s all the things you need to do to be in that C-suite.”
Future of Learning
From AICC NOW, a quick hop over to Packaging University fills out the picture. “It’s really easy to maneuver,” says Harris.
With its ease of use, agrees Brewer, the site helps visitors gather “all that collateral that helps people get a better understanding of the issues.”
Today’s young workers aren’t afraid to ask questions and are eager for educational resources, says Ellis. Packaging University courses, AICC webinars, and other materials provide answers and, for employees seeking career advancement or professional growth, a step up.
As Brewer notes, hiring is an investment, and educating employees in their fields leverages that investment through skill building and strengthened connections to the company.
At Harris Packaging, an employee named Shaban started in graphic design, moved into structural design, and is now helping prepare the next generation of boxmakers by teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) Visual Communication Design program, which Harris supports. “These courses have really helped him broaden his mind on different areas of corrugated—not just design—and he’s able to take that to UTA,” she says.
To maintain a sound financial footing for AICC’s educational efforts, AICC has launched the Foundation for Packaging Education. Once it reaches its goal of a $3 million endowment (see page 66), the foundation will contribute to the costs associated with developing training and education for the industry. “It’s workforce development,” says Brewer. “That’s what we’re after here. We want to be an attractive industry. We want to have people say, ‘What is the packaging industry all about?’”
In other associations, education is usually an add-on to membership dues, while Packaging University offers “so much material for all the different areas in our company,” Harris says. “The fact that it’s free with membership—you can’t ask for anything better than that. I find that to be a very good value.”
Learning is the key to growth for independent boxmakers trying to keep pace with a changing business climate, retain employees, and offer solutions, says Brewer. “If you recognize the offerings and choose to invest and engage, you are going to get results,” he says. “You will see educational results and improved company performance. The offerings are so broad. Education really is the foundation.”
M. Diane McCormick is a freelance journalist based in Pennsylvania and a frequent BoxScore contributor.