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Tomorrow’s Take

By AICC Staff

September 21, 2021

width=259A recurring theme has been repeated in our industry in the first half of this year: “I can’t find workers for my production floor.” Indeed, in a survey of AICC members conducted last November, 51% of respondents reported having six to 10 vacant positions in their companies, while another 25% reported 11 or more openings. In an industry seeing demand for its products grow by more than 5% year over year, the scarcity of workers is straining the ability to keep up with customer demands and on-time deliveries.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, an arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), as of June 30, there were 851,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States. What’s more, the institute projected that between 2021 and 2030, 4.1 million manufacturing jobs will become available, but only 2.1 million will be filled at current employment rates. These alarming statistics are provoking serious soul-searching in both boardrooms and lunchrooms around the country and prompting many people in the box business to ask, “What can the corrugated industry do to attract and retain more workers?”

To help answer this question, BoxScore turned to representatives of AICC’s Emerging Leaders (EL) group to get their take on how to address this issue. After all, if the Manufacturing Institute’s figures are correct, it is our industry’s up-and-coming leaders who, in the years ahead, will be at the forefront of recruiting workers to our industry and implementing company culture and policy to retain them. We asked a series of questions to establish a simple premise: The corrugated and related paper-based packaging industries are interesting and necessary to our distribution system, and they provide stable, rewarding career paths for those who work in them. If this is true, what should the industry be doing to entice more workers, and how will we retain them?

Here are the questions and responses we received.

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Why do you like working in the corrugated/folding carton/rigid box industry?

Jordan Dawson, customer service representative at Harris Packaging in Haltom City, Texas, says, “I love how there is always something new to learn. It seems like every day there is something new that I learn, whether it’s a new style of box, a finishing process, or even machine capabilities.”

Chase Haddon agrees. He’s in sales service at Packaging-Atlanta in Canton, Georgia, and says, “It is a very interesting industry, and not one day is ever the same. The opportunities are endless.” He also likes that he’s working in a family business: “I also get to work alongside my family, which, of course, has its ups and downs, but it keeps things fun!”

“Relevance” resonates with Brock Welch of Welch Packaging in Elkhart, Indiana. “As the world innovates, consumer patterns shift more toward e-commerce; we’re still working in a relevant industry and one that will be required,” he says.

Tom Murphy, director of marketing at Reliable Container in Addison, Illinois, says, “It is an ‘under the radar’ industry; I would go so far as to say that it’s an ‘eccentric’ industry, which fits my personality.” Murphy laments that “not too many outside the industry understand or appreciate [the process] that [delivers] a package to your front door. To the normal citizen, boxes are ubiquitous, but the packaging industry is invisible.”

At Acme Corrugated Box Co. in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, Alex Cohen appreciates the family nature of the business and the environmental advantages of paper-based packaging: “For me, corrugated was the family industry. I believe my passion revolves more around the idea of manufacturing in general; taking relatively basic and sustainable raw materials and then turning them into a profitable product is very rewarding and thought-provoking to see.”

Stable, rewarding careers are what animate Lauren Frisch’s excitement about working in the box business. “I love working in the corrugated box industry due to the endless career opportunities. Any position within the business—finance, design, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and executive leadership—are all available in the packaging industry,” she says. Frisch, who is general manager of Wasatch Container’s Box Essentials division in North Salt Lake, Utah, also serves as an EL delegate on AICC’s board of directors. She cites the satisfaction of seeing a packaging project through from beginning to end: “The excitement of producing packaging from the initial design phase, seeing it being manufactured through your plant, then physically seeing it in the grocery store is one of the most rewarding aspects of my personal job.”

Drew Breier, account manager for Jamestown Container Cos.’ Cleveland division in Macedonia, Ohio, likes the diversity of business within the industry. “One of my favorite parts of this industry is seeing and learning all the other industries we serve and are vendors for. Sometimes it amazes me the customers we serve,” he says.

Finally, as senior account executive at Packaging Express in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Andrew Bell likes the people aspect of the business. “You can’t sell a box over the phone! I enjoy meeting with our customers and colleagues in person every day,” he says.

What do you wish everyone knew about our industry?

If the corrugated and paperboard industries are largely “under the radar,” as Murphy explains, what would our group of AICC members want others to know about it?

“I wish everyone knew that manufacturing is sexy!” says Cassi Malone, customer service manager at Corrugated Supplies in Bedford Park, Illinois. “I’m kidding, but really, while manufacturing and the corrugated industry can get a reputation for being ‘stale’ or an ‘old boys club,’ that is changing. Young professionals, both men and women, are rising up and bringing new technology, ideas, and management styles with them and are looking to foster a culture of innovation, collaboration, and growth.” Malone, who also serves as an EL delegate on AICC’s board of directors, praises the stability of the industry: “Even though other industries such as hospitality and technology can seem enticing, manufacturing offers a stability that was especially evident throughout the pandemic. With the e-commerce boom, corrugated packaging is essential!”

Frisch, for her part, says, “Manufacturing is financially rewarding! You

can have a phenomenal career and work-life balance in the packaging manufacturing industry. It is always changing and progressing as an industry, as new technologies and machines are always being invented to make our plants more innovative and efficient.”

Cohen also appreciates the role plant automation plays in making the industry an interesting place to build a career: “I wish more people knew about the intricacy of making a box. How far the industry has come in terms of technology is quite amazing. If you walked through a plant 20 years ago, it was a much more manual process on all fronts. Today, so long as the owners are willing to innovate, the advancements are there: automatic pre-feeders, robotic load-formers, safety-blue mesh conveyors, high-rack automatic work-in-process systems, etc.”

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“I wish everyone knew how much work, time, and effort goes into packaging,” says Haddon. “I don’t think everyone realizes that packaging is a science and how much goes on behind the scenes to produce a good-looking product, even if it is recycled after a one-time use.”

Welch thinks the diversity of the industry’s products is little understood among the industry’s customers and consumers. “The different facets of our industry make it ‘diverse,’” he says. “From supply chain challenges to the more attractive aspects of single-face laminating, litho labels, and POP displays, to digital printing, our industry is very diverse and broad in scope.”

What should the corrugated and related paperboard industries do to attract motivated and dedicated workers?

Understanding why people like working in this industry and what they wish others knew about it, we asked what the industry should do to attract dedicated and talented employees.

Referring to enhanced unemployment benefits that have been part of various pandemic-related economic stimulus programs, and the wage competition from other industries, Bell thinks the industry’s job diversity is attractive to people. “That’s a tough one when we compete with unemployment benefits and rising wages in the food services industry,” he says. “However, I think we can do a better job showing that each day is different in the box business. We give people the opportunity to work on different machines and projects day in and day out.”

“Modernize the work environment,” says Welch, who also notes the importance of appealing to younger generations of workers. “Identify more with what the incoming generations value—open, collaborative workspaces, work-life balance, flexible hours, idea generation, and feedback sessions.”

Dawson echoes this sentiment: “I feel we need to reach out to the up-and-coming generations early. So many people don’t even realize this is an industry! Reaching out to high schools and colleges and talking to those students about the industry just might spark an interest to at least try an internship or summer job.”

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“Get involved with your local community colleges, trade schools, and colleges,” Frisch says. “Create an attractive work environment—if you wouldn’t want to work in a specific environment at your plant, why would someone else? Advertise at local events to get your name out there!”

Keeping with the generational theme, Haddon says, “I think our industry needs to educate more of the younger generations on the importance of packaging. It is not something that will ever disappear, and people need to know you can make a great career in the corrugated industry.” He suggests social media platforms as a way to reach them: “It would be awesome to create TikTok videos or be an Instagram influencer for your career. The corrugated industry has endless opportunities!”

Cohen also addresses the generational issue: “This is becoming more and more of a generational gap,” he says. “As veteran boxmakers are retiring, the number of millennials willing to work in a plant has declined. The younger generations are much more focused on work-life balances, and computer sciences have taken over their educational focus. I think something that can attract the younger generation is better automation to test the mind, and some increased flexibility in work hours.”

If these strategies are successful, how will the industry then retain these workers? Breier says, “The more you can make plant employees feel valued is key—offering some sort of bonus incentive for quality, running a certain number of orders in a certain amount of time in exchange for a bonus or extra vacation days, etc.”

Murphy says, “Retention is easy if you have a great atmosphere and create an environment where employees feel appreciated. More financial incentives will also create more retention. Money talks.”

Having a “great atmosphere” gives Frisch the last word: “We are a family-run plant with a great culture. We are always going above and beyond for our employees,” she says. “We treat everyone as an individual—the top management team takes time to learn every employee’s name and story. You are not a number at our plant; you are our most valuable asset.”


PortraitSteve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large. He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or syoung@aiccbox.org.