Where’s the next generation of packaging technologists?

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2017

At the Packaging Innovations 2017 event, held at Olympia, London, from 13-14 September, a range of companies and people gathered to dissect the latest developments in the industry. However, there was also a focus on the future, as Gary Peters reports.

The attendee list was as varied as ever – organisation after organisation, stand after stand. That, of course, is the appeal of events such as Packaging Innovations 2017, giving people the opportunity to network and share ideas. 

Running over two days, the show also included a number of seminars to complement the exhibitors and generate talking points. Some focused on specific products, while others took a more general route and open-floor style presentations. For example, how does the Internet of Things apply to packaging, or what part does packaging play in the story of a brand? There was also the Luxury Forum to add, well, a bit of luxury to proceedings, and the Packaging Consultancy Clinic, run by the Institute's Packaging Society, which provided one-to-one advice for attendees.

On day two, Antoinette Devine, a packaging consultant, was joined by Ian Morris, Packaging Training Manager at Packaging Technology Solutions, in a talk entitled, Discovering the next generation of packaging technologists. The theme is becoming more and more popular, as industries, not just packaging, try to figure out how they can entice the workers of tomorrow.

For Morris, the next generation is there, when considering the big, multinational companies. ‘They are prepared to fund the training,’ he said. ‘I think the area where we struggle to get people trained is sometimes through the SMEs of this world. What they cannot do is get the time – how do you get people trained when you've got to give them time off to go to learn?’  

Endless possibilities

If the question is, is there a problem attracting people? The answer is ‘yes’, said Morris. Here, he used his background to frame the argument. ‘Many moons ago, I got a job working for a large high street retailer,’ he explained. 'My boss at the time turned to me and said, you will become the jack of all trades, master of none.'  

‘To be able to do packaging technology well, you have to understand all aspects of a business such as production, procurement and marketing. Without marketing, a lot of the creative ideas that are the mainstay of the industry would not materialise.’ 

Devine made an interesting point – people, often, do not start their careers intending to go into packaging, but once they are in the sector, ‘they never leave’. 

‘The challenge is to educate people about the benefits of packaging,’ she added. ‘Children are taught about the benefits of recycling but not the good that packaging does. The demise of the MSc in packaging technology is lamentable, as there is now no higher qualification in the UK. However, in the USA, Michigan State University is building new premises to house their 600+ annual packaging students.’

The feeling was that packaging does not do enough to sell itself. In a world of competing industries, fighting for the best and brightest, packaging needs to stand out. A potential idea is to market the diversity of careers on offer and underline how important packaging is to society as a whole. 

‘One of the bonuses of the packaging supply chain is that it encompasses every function and element of our lives,’ added Morris. ‘You've got the raw materials people, the converters, the fillers, the retailers – people can get jobs in any of those areas, almost in any function, whether it be sales and marketing, R&D, quality or purchasing. There are fantastic opportunities.

'As I say to my students, without packaging, civilisation as we know it would not exist. There are lots of businesses using packaging all the time – therefore it's not going to disappear tomorrow. Hopefully, there are jobs to be had. The last figure I heard was that there are close to 100,000 people involved in the conversion side of the industry.’

Making packaging sexy

One of the main complaints is that, despite the possibilities, how many graduates, or indeed those who wish to re-train in their career, understand or even know there is a potential career in packaging?

To demonstrate the point, Morris used the comparison of graphic design.  ‘A few years ago […] I’d say there were dozens of design courses,’ he explained. ‘Graphic design is sexy. There are only so many graphic design jobs and the reality is that those who don't get such a job may end up in account management. However, with the right encouragement and training, they could become a valuable resource for our industry.’

Morris added that he would like to see more packaging modules on such courses, and highlighted the work of the Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College, UK, which this year is introducing packaging-themed elements to its syllabus. 

Nevertheless, ‘designers are taught to create beautiful looking packs without any idea of the reality of whether or not they can run down a filling line’, explained Devine. She added that there should be more cross discipline training to support creative yet functional packaging.

Despite the pressures and problems, optimism was still high among attendees at Packaging Innovations. It’s a time of change, no doubt, but also opportunity.