Status of packaging education

Packaging education, and especially its role in industry, was the topic under discussion at a recent packaging meeting. A packaging designer reported that “packaging design is not popular” among students these days.

A packaging educator echoed this thought, noting that the strategic importance of packaging is underestimated by employers, causing it to have little appeal as a professional career. As a result, he said, employers likely focus on industry employees who have some knowledge and can “learn on the job.”

This professor went on to say there is an increasing need for educated packaging people who can cope with economic pressures, environmental trends, globalization, and social and cultural values. Unfortunately, he added, it’s difficult to get industry’s attention when it comes to packaging education. Too many companies have no clear view on skills required. Worse, management is unable to place packaging in its corporate structure.

In general, he said that there are many different streams in the supply chain, and because packaging interfaces with most of them, it is difficult to target decision makers. He said that in the food and beverage area, packaging is often the determining factor for success or failure, yet all too often the responsibilities are given to people who have related skills but no real packaging training.

He said the real needs of manufacturers are not met because the people involved manage to obtain information from suppliers or simply build up expertise that’s just sufficient to manage day to day. Too often, he said, people enter packaging by coincidence and stay there, leveraging their suppliers’ knowledge in their performance.

In no small way, that’s because industry is often not supportive of educational opportunities, especially if those opportunities interfere with worker performance on the job. Thus, he said, many packaging people have difficulty grasping the varied forms of packaging that need to be studied to become a degreed professional. In the food industry, food scientists become the decision makers regarding packaging, even though they have no real training in packaging.

At the same meeting, another speaker noted that the packaging component in many technical areas has been reduced in undergraduate curricula. On the supplier side, this speaker noted that technical sales specialists come from a wide range of backgrounds, since the primary requirement is to be able to communicate and market the product well. “There is a high regard for this group’s ability to convey technical concepts with lucidity,” the speaker indicated.

Perhaps you would take issue with these characterizations. The reason I didn’t identify the meeting or the names of the speakers is that the information was taken from a report from recent meetings of the Victoria chapter of the Australian Institute of Packaging this spring by packaging fellow Michael Halley.

In fact, by my reckoning, this information could have been an apt description of the situation in the United States perhaps three decades ago. And much like the lack of support of technical education we wrote about recently (see packworld.com/go/c143), even today the investments in training and education by manufacturers can be uneven at best.

However, propelled forward by the increasing sophistication of packaging responsibilities, we have vastly improved our efforts in packaging education, in both formal degree curricula at schools and training programs elsewhere.

Much like this description of packaging training in Australia today, we still fight the battle to make packaging a profession to be eagerly sought, instead of just an accidental one. Those of us who have watched its inexorable pace of progress for a number of years remember how often a friend’s or acquaintance’s eyes narrowed with confusion when we tell them we’re in “packaging.”

Sure, U.S. packaging education has developed far beyond how the situation is described “down under.” And for that, educators, institutions and companies—and individuals—can justifiably be thankful. However, so long as some eyes still narrow in confusion, we can’t relax our commitment.

See an archive of Arnie Orloski's Pipeline columns at www.packworld.com/pipeline.

Arnie can be reached at orloski@packworld.com

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