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Powerful emotions surface as packaging pros weigh in on economic uncertainty

The impact of the 2009 economy evoked strong emotions among salary survey respondents who expressed everything from despair over lost jobs to enthusiasm about new opportunities.
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Given a chance to freely express their opinions on the impact of the economy on their business in 2009, packaging professionals spoke their minds in the 2010 Salary Survey conducted by the Institute of Packaging Professionals and Packaging World magazine, developed in cooperation with Gros Executive Recruiters. A report on survey results will be published in Packaging World's April 2010 issue. 

What follows are some of the most thoughtful responses, some of which were edited for clarity.

• “Although business overall slowed down alongside the economy, it has given me an opportunity to focus on taking more responsibility and helping out in different areas of our business. I have also become closer with other employees as we share the same excitement in orders picking up again for the new decade. Things are definitely looking up as far as sustainable and economically responsible packaging. There is talk of a revolutionary insulated container. … This will help the pharmaceutical and biomed industry immensely to keep costs down as our economy gives way to hints of inflation.”

• “Appreciation for employment and [my] employer. In the past, a year without a promotion would have driven me to seek other employment. The fact that my employer values my position and work in the company and sees engineering as a must shows personal and functional value.”

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• “As other engineers are let go, my responsibilities have increased at no extra compensation. I feel lucky to have a job.”

• “I cannot find a job, I am too old, and I have either too much education, or the wrong education. No matter what I do, I face walls.”

• “Companies do not value employees as much as they used to. You can be eliminated at any time.”

• “Company is changing its performance bonus-based system, freezing pay increases, but perhaps increasing stock options in order to link bonus compensation to company performance.”

• “Company is using the economic downturn to give less in benefits and pay. The company made more profit than in the past four years.”

• “Company layoffs and internal job transitions impacted my department and I am the only employee in the packaging department left after joining as the 5th member of the packaging team only two years ago.”

• “Continued outsourcing to Asia has increased the substandard trend of contract manufacturing companies having the ability for self-regulation, which diminishes outside third-party validation. Quality is sacrificed for pricing.”

• “Cost controls have restricted or eliminated professional and industry organizations memberships, and reduced support for professional education opportunities.”

• “Customer cut-backs in staff have led to increasing follow-ups on my end, as customer is unable to do this themselves. Have to do much more for customer, without compensation, in order to bring projects to fruition. [It] brings me to a point where I may just forget about packaging and start from scratch doing something else if I decide to stay in this state.”

• “Difficult to lay off highly effective, experienced packaging engineers (2) and transfer the responsibilities to Asia with individuals with no or little packaging training and no experience. One of these individuals I worked with for more than 15 years.”

• “Doing more work… and the company is not recognizing the lack of people vs. workload, and expect me to handle it. I want and do a great job, but am getting very tired and stressed...so are many others.”

• “Effective leadership has the responsibility to accept the majority of the sacrifices when times are tough. Everyone shares the burden so we can hopefully survive the current crisis and be able to return to sustaninable growth this year.”

• “Equipment sales have been negatively impacted. Customers are uncertain about the economy and this government, so are basically sitting on their wallets. Hoping for 2010 to be much better, but it won't unless this current administration changes its policies immediately.”

• “For the most part, the economic downturn has not impacted me much, other than increasing the anxiety level about job security. While I feel secure in my current position, I've been through reorganizations/downsizing at other companies and I know those decisions sometimes come out of the blue and hit employees. For the most part, our company has thrived and profited during the downturn, so security should be stable as long as performance stays up. I've learned though that there is no job as good as the one you are holding during bad times.”

• “Given the downturn and possible impact on my job security, I am actively pursuing alternate employment which will probably result in a reduction in my annual compensation, but will hopefully provide a more enjoyable work atmosphere.”

• “Having my wages and my hours cut back had me wondering where the future of design was headed. I have reassessed my position within the company I work for, and am reevaluating plans for the future, and I am spending more time with my family.”

• “I am 58 years old and fully realize that I will not be able to replace this job should I loose it. I routinely work 50+ hours per week, frequently on Saturday, just to understand how far behind I am in my backload. I have taken on the jobs of two full-time people--Regulatory Specialist and R&D Development Chemist. The downturn has mostly impacted my personal life--my family suffers because of my absence.”

• “I am fortunate that the economic downturn has not impacted me or the packaging staff at my employer. While other areas of the company I work for are reducing staff positions, my packaging staff is currently looking to add positions to better support manufacturing.”

• “I had to transition from pharma to the chemical industry. My commute involves driving an additional 28 miles/day. My previous employer provided tuition reimbursement while my current employer requires five years’ employment status before they will pay. I am not sure how I will finish my Masters degree program now. I also have taken a position that is somewhat limited and does not allow me to utilize my skills. I am concerned I will not be able to remain current due to lack of exposure to specific technical interfaces.”

• “I have been laid off since April 2009. There are not many jobs available for a former VP Engineering, R&D, New Business Development, and COO. There appear to be jobs for [those with] five to 10 years of experience, or less. Yet, I am told that job would be a step backward. The actual unemployment rate is 17%, plus the under employment rate is another 17%. There is no job creation. We need jobs. People are hard-working and qualified. Yet, where are the jobs?”

• “I make less than I did 10 years ago, packaging responsibilities have been outsourced, and I am working in an area not related to packaging, distribution, logistics, or warehousing.”

• “I took a generous voluntary severance package at my previous employer when they had to decrease headcount (packaging was not affected by these layoffs, but I was intending to leave anyway, actively searching when the severance package was offered to all employees). I took a promotion and higher pay at a great company that appreciates and values my contributions to the packaging department. I found no shortage of open positions and interviews and found a company that fits me very well in this tough economy. Packaging seems to still be going strong, especially in medical device.”

• “I was laid off form a contract package engineering job at GM after eight years. [It was] the best thing that could have happened. Accepted a contract package engineering job with J&J, and was hired full time into a senior-level position last December. I couldn't be happier, although there were some stressful times after the layoff from GM.”

• “I'll likely have to work longer than planned to make up some of the savings lost. Our department has lost personnel, with no apparent attempt to replace them. That's ominous.”

• “I'm fortunate in that the biggest impact has been psychological. Our company remains profitable, although growth expectations are scaled way back. The unrelenting gloom of the 24-hour news cycle makes it difficult to maintain any optimism, even though our results have been pretty good.”

• “I'm lucky to be working in an area that continues to grow--sustainability. I've not experienced any negative impact from the economy. There's always uncertainty in employment, but right now sustainability is valued by my company and our customers, and is seen as something that can help with cost savings.”

• “In 2008 my responsibilities were more than doubled with minimal pay increase, a promised promotion, and a pay increase that I should have seen in 2009 that did not occur. I did get a merit increase. No merit increases are being given in 2010 and 401(k) matching is discontinued. I am expected to get the same or more work done with fewer people and am expected to be happy I have a job. I am disappointed in my attitude and feel the best thing I could do would be to find another position where I could start over with positive energy.”

• “In the food industry, we have seen more consumers purchasing products for home use instead of eating out. Our company has increased sales and hired over 250 new employees. I still feel underpaid versus many of my colleagues in the same field with other companies.”

• “Involuntary layoff. Lack of packaging opportunities leading me to look at alternate career paths.”

• “Instead of growth in my career, 2009 was more like putting it in neutral.”

• “It didn't impact me directly. Staff were given early retirement packages in the packaging department and that was a good thing as they were not productive and wasting a lot of time. No increase in workload due to that. If anything, we were given more work to find cost-savings to keep the plants running in the black.”

• “It has allowed our company to mistreat the employees even more than usual. There is no chance for advancement in our division and no chance to earn more than I did when I started 20 years ago at this company (adjusted for inflation). It’s hard to maintain my enthusiasm for this job. The only upside is I would be happy if they laid me off so I could retire.”

• “It has not affected our industry. Our industry (pet foods) had a very strong year in 2009. Our company had double-digit growth for every product we sell. Based on those facts, my career has been and should continue to be strongly affected in a very positive way.”

• “It is more difficult to close new projects and current business is pressured for cost reductions. I am working harder for essentially the same income. Pushed by management to bring in more business, improve profits, increase manufacturing hours, increase sales. [I] did so and [have not] not [been] compensated proportionally since it is all for the greater cause, which I get in one perspective, but on a personal level it feels self-defeating. So you want to maybe make a change but given the economy do you take the risk when you have a job, a decent one to come to everyday? The answer: Not as likely as I would have four years ago. There is so much risk out there, so it hinders personal career development--and the management knows it too.”

• “It really hasn't impacted us that much. In fact, it allowed us to add on to our warehouse at a lower price due to interest rates and abundance of construction firms competing for limited work. It also allowed us to purchase our products at better pricing due to increased competition from suppliers. Of course we [have] also see an increased push from our competitors, so that's kind of a nonissue. I think we've been fairly isolated from the recession here in the Midwest due to the more conservative nature of the banks and their lending practices, so it's been somewhat business as usual.”

• “Job security is my biggest concern at this time. As the company looks to cut costs, will some of the packaging jobs be eliminated or consolidated (especially the jobs of packaging engineers with the most experience)? And, if our jobs aren't eliminated, will we be encouraged or incentivized to leave to make room for lower-cost, less-experienced packaging engineers?”

• “Less $$, not as secure, feel there is no career. I'm 53 and just hanging on for the day to retire. The glory days of making advancement within your career and pay are over. Too much competition from offshore is hurting. Unsure about the future and ability to stay employed.”

• “Limited understanding by our corporate execs of packaging and the related processes has created a false sense of packaging is easy. This has resulted in a staff reduction and a reliance on third parties that do not have the ability to influence key stakeholders in other departments to get project buyoff support. This will create long-term brand inconsistency on the shelf.”

• “Local management did not support packaging sales because they consider us as primarily a paper company. They implemented order charges that deterred our small and mid-size customers from buying from us. The impact has been about 50% loss of income for me and other packaging reps in our company and management will not reassign accounts to balance income among the sales force. Two reps have all the large accounts and have no financial concerns and continue to coast. The VP of our Midwest distribution supports me fully and shares in concern of local management. New management and the market renewal is my hope for 2010.”

• “Made me appreciate and remember how fragile things are.”

• “My career impact required the team to take on more tactical actions and less strategic vision to the future state of our department and operations. We are stealing from our future and burning up our employees with overburdensome work.”

• “My company gave me more responsibility, advanced me into a supervisory role, continually mentioned that this is more than a 50-hour work week, with no monetary compensation. It’s now more for less. There is no longer any chance to have work-life balance. I work harder so that I am not on a short list if there is another downturn and opportunity for layoff.”

• “Never take a day for granted--make the day count and give it your best.”

• “No affect. My company is growing and has plans to increase our staff by about 15%. Whew-whoo for innovative medical devices!”

• “No bonus, and no salary change. I strongly consider the needs of my job when planning or taking any vacation time. Reduction/elimination of overtime work and the additional compensation previously earned. I strongly suspect that further reductions may take place in the future including salary reduction, benefit reduction/elimination.”

• “No differently than it has probably impacted most people—a down economy, business profits suffered, concern for the success of the business, working harder with less, a concern for other working family members and their ability to keep their jobs. Belt tightened just to be safe.”

• “No merit increases in two years. No upgrade in position status in 10 years. Fewer designers remaining with the company after layoffs, but the workload has remained the same, meaning that everyone is doing more in less time, with no additional benefits. Currently working 10-hour days to compensate for extra work load/time constraints, at the expense of family/personal time. Bleak economic outlook, more layoffs looming, and few outside opportunities in this area for other work.”

• “Now have to continually look for new better and faster ways to deliver and cut time out of packaging process. Process improvement has become a constant priority.”

• “Our company went through some layoffs and we as a sales force had to pick up some of the slack. We are still operating a little short-handed, but I think the outlook for 2010 is positive.”

• “Packaging at our company was downsized at twice the factor of R&D functions. During this all positions above me were eliminated, essentially limiting any career development. I saw the size of my group double with no additional pay or formal recognition of additional responsibilities.”

• “Packaging is still strong despite the economic downturn. My company invested heavily during this time to boost sales but did not hire more design/engineering staff to support this. My workload is probably 50% higher than in 2008.”

• “Personally, the downturn created opportunity as top performers were given more responsibility. I received a promotion in 2009 that has opened many new doors for me. However, I realize that this was an uncommon situation in 2009.”

• “Reduction in workforce at my employer has had a negative impact on my capability to sale. I rep various OEM equipment and they also had reductions in workforce and inventory, which also had a very negative impact on my sales.”

• “Severe cutbacks in personnel have increased the workload on those remaining. Stress has increased as no excuses are being tolerated and we are all too cowed to complain. We fear for our jobs and upper management is taking full advantage of the situation and playing it for all it is worth.”

• “Since so many talented engineers have lost their jobs throughout the country, it has become more difficult to find opportunities elsewhere. There are many talented engineers who are willing to take the same position for less pay, because less pay is better than nothing.”

• “Surprisingly, 2009 was a very good year for consulting. When companies reduce their budgets and workforce, support functions like market research are hit the hardest. Companies still need these services and outsourcing is sometimes the only option. Market research is particularly important in a down economy if a company wants to grow when the economy turns around and gain market share from defunct competitors.”

• “The change in the economy has prevented growth as clients aren’t willing to make changes to their current packaging. In fact, if changes are made they are typically toward a style of packaging that is less expensive.”

• “The downturn has not affected our company. We have been very aggressive with new product development and we have several new products that we’re designing packaging for. A wage freeze in 2009 hurt a little, but increases have been reinstated for 2010.”

• “The downturn added to the sense of urgency to find and implement value improvement (savings) opportunities. As idea generators and technical enablers, I believe this has added to the prominence of the package engineering function.”

• “The economic downturn had a personal impact on my packaging career because my company decided to lay off more packaging engineers than any other R&D function. Unfortunately, this also caused people to leave the company voluntarily and move to other companies. This almost doubled my workload, which in turn, affected my work/life balance and overall employee moral. I'm hoping 2010 brings job creation for the large number of engineers looking for work, especially in California.”

• “The economic stimulus from the Federal Government has allowed for accelerated depreciation and tax credits on capital expenses. This has helped our customer reach key decisions related to new equipment more quickly. This equipment has allowed select customers to increase their business and in turn, buy more materials from us. Our business has doubled in this region over past two years. However, I am concerned about the longer-term recovery and the impact that will have on our customers business, and ultimately ours. Federal programs for extending depreciation and credits for capital expenses are key. I see an opportunity in a Cap and Trade program on carbon; it could have a positive impact on conversion from high carbon packaging (steel and aluminum cans, glass, rigid plastic) to technology with lighter footprint such as flexible and paperboard.”

• “The economy affected some segments of our business. While some slowed, others, such as food packaging, increased. Our company was fortunate to thrive in this economy. Many companies cut their labor forces and turned to contract packagers to meet their labor needs.”

• “The lack of salary increase, increase in cost for insurance, and layoffs in our area has made work a bit stressful. I am not optimistic there are job options for me in my local area if I were to look for a new job, since I do know several packaging folks who are still looking after six months. Companies that are hiring seem to be looking for less experienced staff that can be hired for a lower salary. But overall, I like my work and am happy to work for this company right now.”

• “There has been a series of layoffs of the more expensive, experienced management personnel at the company where I was working, and their replacement by less costly, younger personnel over an extended period of time. It is a plain and simple cost-savings method.”

• “This, by far, was the most frustrating year of my career.”

• “Was laid off at the end of January 2009. My job, structural design for packaging machinery systems, was very specialized. Searching [for work] in February through May 2009 was fruitless; the market was dead. I think it is unlikely I will be continuing in packaging, and I will probably not make as much as before in a new field. I think it is likely that age was a factor in my being laid off, and it seems to be a factor making the job search more difficult.”

• “We as a company needed to become lean and find ways to be profitable in a down economy with approximately 15% less top-line sales. We were able to consolidate departments, take on more responsibility, become very efficient in our jobs and focus on continuous improvements. We did that and experienced a very strong and profitable year.”

• We did not replace some personnel as they left which more of a work load on the department. More focus on cost reduction externally by our customers than on growth. Trying to ride out the storm. [There are] some signs that is changing. Expect more M&A activity in the packaging sector.”

• “We had a merger with another company resulting in me, and others, ending up in jobs that we would never have applied for. At least we have jobs. Also, the company culture has changed dramatically for the worse. It's management by intimidation. The overall culture is very negative, thanks to the company we merged with.”

• “We have had shutdowns every other week from May until the end of December of 2009. Reductions in hours worked and changes to benefits have been tough to take. The team concept that was preached is evidently no longer necessary because the changes made this year have everyone worried about their own good and not the overall good; this includes me.”

• “We are the ones who create the economy--it is in our hands to produce the best quality of packaging as possible by being creative and innovative—it’s what we do best. There are many companies trying to raise prices on clients who now are looking at Asia as a solution to their needs, walking away from our American industries to seek help outside the U.S. We must look at who we are and what we can do to solve and provide solutions to those markets. We must change our ways of thinking, and become solutions providers, think like they think, not like we want to think.”

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