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Engineers are taking the wraps off great careers in the packaging industry

By Judith Earley

You probably encounter it hundreds of times every day. It informs, serves a critical function and even entertains on occasion. Yet many engineering and computer science majors overlook the career possibilities associated with product packaging.

Virtually every product you can buy uses some form of bag, wrap, box—or all three together. According to JoAnn R. Hines, founder of Women in Packaging, 10% of every dollar that consumers spend in the grocery store is directly attributed to packaging. And packaging is the third largest industry in the United States.

With no end to growth in sight, packaging companies both large and small are looking for technical employees who can bring value to their products and incorporate higher levels of technology. As a result, women and minorities are finding an industry hungry for their skills.

The Pensacola, Fla., office of the search firm Management Recruiters International specializes in placing workers in the packaging industry and vice president James Clark gives the field a thumbs up in terms of hiring. "Every position imaginable is available," he says. "The demand is significantly greater than the supply. Anyone who has a degree in anything that is related to packaging, or is transferable to packaging, should have no problem finding an opportunity."

According to Clark, the demand for talent is so great, it's impeding prosperity for packaging companies right now. "It's the number one problem that most companies are facing and the number one issue that could either help a company advance or slow down its growth," says Clark. "The industry continues to grow significantly. The problem has been having the personnel to keep pace with developing technology."

Both Clark and Hines agree that there is an emerging trend among packaging companies toward consolidation. Recent mergers include International Paper Co. in Purchase, N.Y., joining Union Camp Corp. in Wayne, N.J. this year; and Jefferson Smurfit Corp. in St. Louis with Stone Container Corp. in Chicago in late 1998. As these companies grow, they are interested in larger volumes of business. Yet smaller companies are also thriving, accepting the shorter run projects that the bigger companies don't want. In addition, there are a number of start-up companies that have been able to identify their own niche. For example, the Earth Shell Container Corp. produces environmentally friendly packaging for McDonalds.

Says Hines, "Companies are merging right and left. The number of major players is really diminishing, but nobody is folding. There is no company in the packaging industry that is not doing well." Because the industry is so large and diversified, it would be impossible for one company to achieve complete dominance, she adds.

That's a Wrap!

Engineers in this industry help design how a product will meet the market, a complex process involving the consideration of numerous factors. Among the questions they must ask: What materials will be used—paper, paperboard, plastics, glass, metal, wood or composites? Is protective packaging necessary? How will the product be labeled? Will it require shrink-wrap? What machinery will be used to assemble the package? Some product packaging must even take into account environmental and international import/export issues, in addition to storage and shipping concerns.

As more and more components of the packaging process are done by computer, packaging engineers will all have to have some computer science background if they are going to work in package development. "Much of the graphic design is done by CAD. Then there's shipping software for optimization of trucks and design software for optimization of packaging configuration. It's all becoming very computer-oriented," Hines says.

Virtually every consumer goods company has at least one packaging engineer on staff. Most companies will have their own team of people, which will include product managers, engineers and graphic designers working on a given product line. In a company with a diverse product line, packaging engineers need to know about a variety of areas. At large companies, however, the engineers may be specialized, while smaller companies often require one person to design, address environmental issues and concentrate on transportation concerns.

Today, more and more students are learning these skills in the classroom. About ten schools and universities in the United States now offer a packaging science curriculum at either the undergraduate or graduate level. One such campus is Michigan State University, where packaging is described as a socio-scientific discipline, operating "to provide delivery of goods to the ultimate consumer in the condition intended for use." The curriculum focuses on packaging's three functions: protection, utility and communication.

At the MSU School of Packaging, students learn to address the problems and opportunities that exist at each junction of interaction between the function of a package and its environment. The school has an internship program that is one of the largest of its kind. Steadily growing since its inception, the program now includes hundreds of corporations from across the United States.

Nationwide, 40% to 50% of the students graduating from packaging science programs are women. Hines says the opportunities for women and minorities in the field are rapidly increasing. "Because packaging is growing at such a phenomenal rate, people can be whatever they want to be," she says. "But many people don't consider packaging as a career option, minorities included."

Presently, Hines is looking for funding for a video project targeted at sixth graders. The video will show women in non-traditional fields, with a primary focus on minority women. "We want to get out in front of the minority candidates and let them know that these kinds of jobs are out there."

Job Functions

According to Michigan State University's School of Packaging, engineering students who concentrate on this industry may find jobs performing some of these functions:

  • planning and developing new packages, or improving present packages, to meet standards of quality, function and cost
  • drawing detailed specifications and descriptive materials for new package ideas and ways to improve existing packages
  • conducting necessary tests of new and improved packages and packaging materials
  • translating marketing recommendations and concepts into realistic packaging specifications for all company products
  • designing packaging for products consistent with anticipated product application, available packaging equipment, projected costs and anticipated volumes
  • cooperating with marketing in the development of new merchandise techniques, and developing display materials of new packages or packaging changes

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