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The Education Difference

By AICC Staff

May 24, 2021

AICC has been all about education since it began in 1974. After all, the Association’s founding belief is that boxmakers are stronger together. Boxmakers grow more, and become far more formidable, if they learn from each other and cooperate when they can, instead of reinventing the wheel.

We all know education is important. But for too many of us, when we leave formal education behind, we never return to it.

AICC has been trying to change that through seminars, webinars, conferences, and online education. AICC does not do it alone. The Association works with universities and its two foundations to ensurethe strength of the industry. There’s really so much that AICC offers.

Peruse the offerings, and one thing is clear: The barriers to continuing one’s education are falling.

The Foundation for Packaging Education

The Foundation for Packaging Education, created during the fall of 2020, aims to reach the people who are immersed in the boxmaking industry but recognize that there’s still plenty for established employees to learn. You may not have time to fly out or drive to some city and go to a seminar, but you probably have the time to take a one-hour course on flexographic print fundamentals or how to use value-stream mapping. (And if an hour seems like a long time, keep in mind, you don’t have to take the course all at once. You can digest it in, say, five or 10 minutes per evening, if you want.)

Long before the Foundation for Packaging Education, for much of AICC’s history, boxmaking seminars were held at conferences and sometimes independently, in the ballroom of a hotel or at a member’s plant, according to AICC President Michael D’Angelo.

“While seminars are well attended, it is hard for people from the plant to get away from their jobs, and the travel and lodging costs could be a barrier,” D’Angelo says.

So, although AICC still encourages firsthand, in-person learning, it began putting individual classes online. Still, as D’Angelo explains it, at first not everybody had the $90 to take a single AICC online course. It might not be an impediment for a business owner to shell out $90 for an employee to take a course, but if you were an individual who wanted to get ahead on your own, that amount could be a reach.

So AICC removed the fee. “Once that barrier of 90 bucks went away, participation exploded,” D’Angelo says.

Participation grew particularly during the start of the pandemic. Logins to take coursework doubled, in part because in the first few weeks of the lockdowns, manufacturing plants were slowing

down, and employers didn’t want to lay people off, and using the time to train people how to do their jobs even better seemed like the smart approach. Which it was, given how the pandemic ultimately fueled the box industry throughout 2020, with many companies setting records for orders and having their best year yet.

The online participation continued as well. “People were taking the online courses, and suddenly we were under pressure to develop more courses, and that segues to where we are today,” D’Angelo says.

The online catalogue now has more than 90 courses in both English and Spanish.

Getting courses in place is easier said than done. When asked if it was really all that big a deal to drop the $90—how expensive is it to put up an online class, really?—D’Angelo lays out the costs. There are the expenses for the learning management software that hosts the classes, the cost of paying people to put together and teach a course, and the cost of translating courses to Spanish, among other things. “There’s a whole supply chain to make sure these courses happen,” D’Angelo says, “and to make sure that we’re constantly developing new, interesting, and timely education materials.”

For instance, there’s the course on right-weighting, which refers to finding the right mix of substrates to appeal to both end-users and box manufacturers in terms of making sure a box hits the marks on cost, sustainability, strength, and efficiency. There’s the rotary die cutting operation course, which explores the use of rotary die cutters in corrugated packaging manufacturing and the production of in-store displays. There’s a maintenance mapping course. If you’re interested in taking a course on understanding accounts receivable and cash, there’s one for that, too. If human resources is your jam, there are—so far—three courses available. If you want a history course on the corrugated industry, you can take one. There are courses in leadership, sales, production, and safety.

“The program’s got legs,” D’Angelo says. “And it’s something that AICC considers vital for our members and the success of their business. As we know, companies that care about their employees invest in them, and when you invest in people, that fosters loyalty, and you’re more likely to fill open positions and promote from within and retain team members. The No. 1 challenge in this industry is finding and retaining good people, because it’s tough to get people to come into a manufacturing facility to start with.”

ICPF and Colleges

AICC’s other foundation, the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation (ICPF) was founded in the mid-1980s and designed to appeal to college students who might have an interest in boxmaking. It’s been a huge success over the years.

For instance, Ben Dolezal is an associate professor of visual communication design in the art and art history department at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). He has been teaching packaging design courses to college students since 2012. The two classes he currently teaches are called Packaging & 3D CAD and Advanced Packaging.

The courses are taught in a classroom—well, before the pandemic—but have utilized online materials from ICPF since the packaging design courses began at the university in 2012. The students also compete every year in the AICC Student Design Challenge, which offers cash prizes to the first-place winners. Quite a few UTA students have placed as top three finalists, Dolezal says, and more importantly, many of the alumni have gone on to illustrious careers.

“We have alumni from our program working in a variety of places around

the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex,” Dolezal says. “Some of these include Frito-Lay, Mary Kay, Green Bay Packaging, Harris Packaging Corp., Southern Champion Tray, American Carton Co., Performance POP, Bioworld, and Smurfit Kappa Bates. These former students are working in roles that include packaging graphics, branding, and packaging structure design.”

The last year, however, was a challenge for UTA due to the pandemic, says Dolezal, who had to teach his courses online. In 2021, he has been offering a hybrid format with online and in-person instruction. “As you can imagine, it’s difficult to provide quality instruction online for a course topic that centers around three-dimensional design considerations,” Dolezal says, adding that projects in the Packaging & 3D CAD course that students work on typically include a beverage label design, a product package design for a toy, and a shipper box design. He anticipates having purely in-person classes in the fall.

The Advanced Packaging course builds upon the knowledge students gain from the previous packaging course and provides opportunities to work collaboratively on more complex packaging designs. “These projects include canned-beverage designs, subscription box design, and a countertop display that contains multiple products,” Dolezal says.

The pandemic didn’t only affect classes. There have been a lot of changes to ICPF in the last year, according to Richard Flaherty, president of ICPF. Flaherty, who worked with universities to help them set up distance learning capabilities, also says that last summer, ICPF established a student advisory board that provided valuable input on how to stage a virtual dinner.

Every year, ICPF holds a dinner at which students interested in a career in corrugated packaging participate. Last December, with 30-some students from 10 different universities participating, the dinner was virtual.

ICPF also worked to identify available scholarships for packaging students whose families were financially impacted by COVID-19.

Still, while COVID-19 impacted the program, it hung on. Jana Harris, president and CEO of the Harris Packaging Corp., has been involved with AICC and UTA’s program for some time. Harris has been an AICC board of directors member for about a decade and is the chairperson of the AICC education committee.

She is an effusive supporter of ICPF and, several years ago, hired one of Dolezal’s students, who works at Harris Packaging and is now also an adjunct professor at UTA, teaching students about packaging. “If you really spend time with universities and find your way into the community, it’s a really great payoff for both your company and the students,” Harris says, adding that she has found talent simply by calling professors and asking them to recommend their best designer.

Harris also says that ICPF’s outreach to colleges has helped the industry immensely. “It’s eye-opening to students for them to see what kind of jobs are out there. We have a lot of friendly competitors who want to hire people, and the corrugated industry is often off a student’s radar,” Harris says.

Adult and Workforce Learning Opportunities

Since 2017, The Packaging School in Greenville, South Carolina, and Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, have offered certificates to packaging professionals.

The Packaging School offers a Certificate of Packaging Science, Certificate of Mastery in Packaging Management, and the Automotive Packaging Certificate. All courses in the Certificate of Packaging Science are free to AICC members. “All of our certifications are a bit different, but we do feel that they all help raise your packaging IQ to confidently communicate on topics such as material selection, production processes, critical influences, and packaging design,” says Julie Rice-Suggs, Ph.D., academic director at PackagingSchool.com. “The certificates are predominantly aimed at those folks in the industry or looking to get into the industry. We see the majority of our users come from a packaging background—for example, engineers, designers, procurement, distribution looking to level up their education or add some continued education credits to their résumés.”

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The coursework, she says, uses a technique called “microlearning,” in which coursework is broken up into “bite-sized” lessons. “Corrugated board grades can get pretty tedious,” she says. “Lessons take the form of infographics, quick readings, videos, animations, discussions, and interactive slides.”

And while COVID-19 has ravaged much of the country, making everybody sick of it, like the packaging industry, online education has benefited from the pandemic. Rice-Suggs says that the AICC members taking online courses tripled in March and April 2020 over the two previous months. “From our conversations with packaging professionals, they said that they had more time on their hands and wanted to take advantage of the free education when they could,” she says.

D’Angelo likes hearing that: “People are often well trained on the equipment that they’re using, but it’s important to understand what it means to be part of the supply chain, and the more you know about the industry, you have more of a sense of belonging at the company you’re working at.”

D’Angelo recalls, early during the pandemic, wishing government officials were more educated about the packaging industry. “Some states didn’t classify our workers as essential,” says an incredulous D’Angelo, who spent a lot of those early days on the phone trying to convince people at state capitols that the boxmaking industry employees should be allowed to go to work.

“We’d talk about how people were at home and ordering groceries and supplies, and I’d say, ‘Well, how do you think it gets there?’ And the light would come on, and they’d realize it gets there in a box, and they’d say, ‘Oh. I’ll call you right back,’” D’Angelo remembers. “And five minutes later, they’d say, ‘You guys are cleared.’ Honestly, some people at the state capitol have no idea what a supply chain is. Well, you want your employees to know their own why—why they do what they do—and that what they do is essential and good, honest, necessary work, and you can only do that through education and training.”


JeffGeoff Williams is a journalist and writer based in Loveland, Ohio.