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Your Best Team Members

By AICC Staff

September 13, 2018

Across the United States, the owners and managers of packaging manufacturers and their suppliers have listed the challenges faced in the current state of efforts to attract and retain talent.

  1. A shortage of applicants who are both willing to and capable of doing the work.
  2. Competition for applicants from other manufacturers, as well as fast-growing logistics companies.
  3. An existing workforce that is aging and having difficulty transferring the benefits of their knowledge and experience to the next generation.
  4. An accelerating need for technical and management prowess.

In past articles (BoxScore, May/June 2017 and 2018, Leadership), I have outlined alternatives to the traditional methods utilized by the industry at large. Here I will report insights of exemplary employees, innovative employers, and education providers.

Education is a key factor, whether the focus is attracting or developing exemplary employees.

What Attracts Exemplary Employees?

If I were starting a new company (and I am not), those I interviewed for this article would be high on the list of those I’d want on my team. They are all gainfully and happily employed and would reject solicitation, so kindly resist that urge. J. Ryan Zambon, information systems manager at Weber Display and Packaging, offers that he has been interviewing many potential employees of late.

Zambon says: “I ask candidates to describe their perfect next job, and there is one common desire that can be summarized with one word: culture. A culture that makes someone feel at home—friendly and supportive with teamwork, helpfulness, and respect for each and every person. Just as people enjoy coming home at the end of the day, people want to enjoy going to work at the beginning of the shift. A culture that breeds success by making people successful with the right training and opportunities for personal and professional growth. Hiring people for their skills is less than half the battle—the real work is hiring people with alignment to the company’s culture. There’s no motivation to work in a dead-end job, and without the right company culture, every job is dead-end.”

Terri-Lynn Levesque, office manager at Royal Containers, adds her personal wish list, which includes many of the programs offered by her employer. She says highly motivated people like her desire the expected competitive compensation with excellent health and retirement plans. She adds that attractive companies have employee assistance programs, tuition reimbursement, and child care options.

“The most appealing company is the one that rewards performance over all other factors. I want the management to value my work and to see me as more than employee No. 452,” she says. “Knowing them and being known, I can be considered for new challenges, and just as importantly, I will know that they care about my family and me.

“Another key attraction is a flexible schedule. I am going to get the work done, and I appreciate working for a company that puts a high priority on work-life balance.”

Levesque also emphasizes, “The company has to be a good fit with my values. I want to know that continuous communication is priority. This would include feedback on performance for both good and bad outcomes. I want to know that they deal with underperforming staff who are a drain on the departments they work in. Finally, there is a lot to know and much that is changing, so commitment to continuous education is also a value.”

Daniel Brettschneider, operations manager at CST Systems, says, “I would be most interested in a company that viewed their staff as a high-functioning team and protected them in the internal and external trenches as their most important business factor.” He echoes comments above on the value of flexible hours, work-life balance, clear job requirements, and timely performance feedback.

In addition, Brettschneider speaks to the importance of continuous improvement: “They would show a dedication to developing and streamlining processes, removing redundant areas, and consistently seeking out new ways of doing/managing their business so that staff can focus on the next big challenge.” He also agrees that continual education matters: “They would cross-train employees in as many areas of the company as possible, and especially in the application of the core business.”

What Are Innovative Employers Doing?

width=300Education is a key factor, whether the focus is attracting or developing exemplary employees. For some time, President Container Group has offered a full on-site math class with emphasis on application to packaging manufacture. Successful completion of the course guarantees the student priority access to applicable jobs at the company. This proactive initiative was developed to deal with the inability of most applicants to complete measurement and data entry tasks required for the job. The results have benefited both the company and the community.

Manufacturing is seen by many as a secondary career alternative. Bill Nolan, president of Standard Printing Co., is intent on fighting that perception and staying an employer of choice in Canton, Ohio. “It has been advantageous to develop relationships with local high school teachers who have toured our facility,” he says. “They are motivated to help place students into an internship program and ultimately full-time employment once they graduate.”

At Pacific Southwest Container (PSC), I heard from Vice President of Human Resources Blake Steward. The company has made good use of Facebook and other social media sites to broadcast open positions. These sites connect to landing pages that market the company and jobs to prospective applicants, highlighting individual PSC team members who tell their personal stories in pictures, video, and script. This includes an online application portal.

Steward describes an education initiative that has been effective in preparing the workforce in their headquarters location of Stanislaus County, Calif. “For several years we have partnered with Opportunity Stanislaus, whose primary mission is to develop the readiness of the county’s workforce and to create opportunities for businesses and prospective employees to connect,” he says. “We have been active as board and steering committee members through the creation of the VOLT Institute. VOLT’s intent is to develop the technical and operational capabilities of the county’s workforce to enable local businesses to hire technically trained employees and close the skills gap that has existed between business and job applicants. Its first class of certified Industrial Maintenance Mechanics graduated on June 27, 2018.”

Six of those graduates were PSC employees utilizing the company’s tuition reimbursement benefit.

AICC works with schools, supplier members, and other subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide a growing catalog of on-site and online courses for the development of member company employees.

What Opportunities Do Educators Provide?

For Future Employees

Many universities and technical schools prepare students for the packaging industry. The programs are enhanced by the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation (ICPF), whose mission is to generate a stream of increasingly qualified students to enter the corrugated industry. Employers that are active on campus in career days, interviews, and providing internships have the best chance of attracting students. According to faculty in multiple schools, the technological advancement in nonpaper packaging and graphic sciences has resulted in our industry being seen as a backup plan for many students. Some boxmakers have changed that trend by marketing their companies to students and providing a more realistic view of the industry. At California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), the approach is pragmatic. Instructor Colleen Larkin Twomey emphasizes that the school’s motto is “learn by doing.” Packaging companies are involved in job fairs, internships, and even as members of various committees. This has helped the school to develop the workforce, and it’s improved the company talent pipeline.

The type of talent being prepared by a particular school may be seen on their website pages featuring résumés of graduating students. Also of value are the sites that allow alumni with at least a few years of experience to post their résumés.

For Current employees

Online Training. For development of those already involved in packaging, some of these schools also offer online degree programs. Cal Poly’s packaging program offers certificates aimed specifically at packaging industry professionals that will feature interactive online coursework. Each program takes less than six months to complete. A course is currently focused on Packaging for Logistics and Supply Chains. Another example is Clemson University’s online offerings, including a 30-semester-unit master’s degree in industrial engineering.

AICC works with schools, supplier members, and other subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide a growing catalog of on-site and online courses for the development of member company employees. More will be said below about destination workshops and seminars.

AICC’s partner in online education development is a sanctioned entrepreneurial outgrowth of Clemson’s curriculum led by Clemson professors and alumni. I asked Sara Shumpert Dunn, managing director of The Packaging School, to comment on the need they fill. “Because demand for packaging employees far outweighs the supply of qualified candidates, we work to provide an efficient solution. Online education can be utilized in combination with personalized apprenticeship programs,” she says. “The Packaging School’s online courses are perfect for staff development. Investing in employee education is key to engagement and efficiency within your organization.”

The partnership, known as AICC Packaging School, provides members with free access to our combined curriculum. Recent additions to the list of more than 40 offerings include Essentials of Water-Based Flexo Inks, created with support of BCM Inks. Responding to the new hire’s need to understand the math used daily, Packaging Production Math was developed. Many courses are available on flexography, safety, and corrugated production, and an increasing number of courses pertain to folding carton and rigid box manufacture. These are complemented by a variety of courses for leadership development and process improvement. The Packaging School’s certificate programs are available for packaging science and packaging management.

By adopting and amending best practices described by the attractive employers we heard from above, we can grow past the frustrating current state.

AICC’s Packaging School makes the online training available when and where it is needed.

  • A technically skilled employee with ongoing communication shortfalls can complete Communication for Coaches, and then meet with a supervisor to discuss the learnings and develop an action plan.
  • A sales professional who is new to packaging may be assigned a series of courses to complete a development track to increase practical understanding of our history and best practices.
  • An HR manager may use the Internal Staff Development Guide to enhance their onboarding of employees for faster productivity and engagement.
  • Every employee can have a unique login and record of quiz scores and course completions.

On-Site Courses. There are times when the best way to learn is to be face to face with instructors and peers for in vivo experiences with people, technology, and machinery. Taryn Pyle, AICC’s director of education and leadership development, and I work with SMEs across our industry to provide destination courses that exceed the value of the investment. We understand that having key employees away from the plant is as expensive as the travel and tuition involved. In addition to such mainstays as Corrugated Fundamentals and Flexographic Printing Best Practices (at Clemson), this past year saw the addition of Understanding the Corrugator, Productive Machine Measurement, and Digital Printing on Corrugated. Beginning this fall, courses will be offered on Rotary Die Cutting Best Practices (at Fox Valley Technical College), Corrugator Maintenance Best Practices, Lithographic Best Practices (at Cal Poly), and a new Sales Managers’ Forum. Over the past two years, significant progress has been made in helping participants transport the best practices learned in these courses into common practices used in their plants.

The Future State

The challenges of finding, attracting, developing, and retaining talented employees are formidable. When we listen to exemplary employees as they describe the company they aspire to join, we can prioritize and adapt in order to be an employer of choice. By adopting and amending best practices described by the attractive employers we heard from above, we can grow past the frustrating current state. We can invest the same amount of time we are reacting to turn over problems in proactive workforce development efforts. Finally, we can invest in new and seasoned employees by valuing training. That would include aggressively utilizing the free online resources available to AICC members, assigning development tracks to engaged employees, and incenting long-term employees to share their knowledge with co-workers.

In this market, employees manage their careers as both contributors and consumers. Savvy employers are investing in local workforce development, as well as in key education pipelines. They also invest in existing employees with ongoing education and varied experiences to increase their ability and engagement. AICC provides resources for your success in all these endeavors.


width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. He can be reached at 425-985-8508 or scott@workingwell.bz.