Packaging and processing companies scouting for the next generation of professionals needed to look no further than the floor of PACK EXPO International.
Dozens of students were among the 40,000 attendees at this year’s expo in Chicago, which took place October 23-26 at the McCormick Place convention center.
Most participated in competitions to gain hands-on industry education. Many came to the show with their own unique interests in mind, and some offered advice on how companies can attract up-and-coming talent like them.
High Schoolers at the PACK Challenge: An End-to-End Filling Machine Competition
For the first time at PACK EXPO, high school engineering teams took part in a machine building competition, dubbed the PACK Challenge.
Six teams participated from across Chicagoland and surrounding areas, each working with a kit that included all the components needed for a filling machine. Teams were judged on their machine’s filling performance, and also the machine’s design, operator training, safety, ease of changeover, and a sales and marketing presentation.
“We spent a lot of time on this project and this was super important to us,” says Zach Mettille, a junior at this year’s competition winner Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wis. “We were just happy if we had a working machine, and to see us win something like this is really awesome for us.”
|Read this story on Waterford Union High School's Win at the Inaugural PACK Challenge
Mettille entered the competition with an interest in roller coasters and mechanical engineering, but the show opened his eyes to the potential of the packaging industry.
“I had no clue how large the filling industry was until we did this,” he says. “I heard about PACK EXPO, and coming here, it really shows you how big of an industry and how important it actually is. And so I think doing more student outreach programs and competitions and stuff to really engage [students] in what they do is a huge opportunity.”
Mike Richmond, a PACK Challenge judge and co-founder of packaging consultancy PTIS, said students might just need to be shown that packaging is an option.
Richmond says students can learn unique skills in engineering through their own interests, with roller coasters as a prime example. These students can bring that expertise and new thinking to innovate packaging technologies, and even learn from packaging to bring new ideas to other fields.
Thinking green could also help companies attract young talent, as “it’s important for them to be able to leave their footprint better than they started with,” Richmond says. “If [companies] don’t have a sustainability program, kids just don’t want to go to it.”
Richmond was tasked with judging each team’s marketing and design plan, and says he was impressed with their ingenuity and ability to identify what differentiated them.
“I thought the presenters were succinct, they were clear, they had a lot of novel little things that they added into it,” he says. “I couldn’t have been more proud of what they’re learning and what they put together.”
Packaging and Processing Crash Course at the Amazing Packaging Race
Perhaps the most noticeable students on the show floor were those participating in the Amazing Packaging Race, marked by their bright colored competition T-shirts as they rushed through the aisles.
These students were engineering majors from universities across the U.S., racing in groups to solve problems and complete tasks at participating booths.
“Each booth had a wide variety of tasks; one was programming a robot to go to certain points, some were answering questions, some were just listening to them talk and taking a picture with them,” explained junior Virginia Tech engineering student Noah Madel after the race.
Madel joined his school’s packaging program last spring after touring the packaging lab, and “it just kind of exploded,” he says. “You can just do so much with it; there are so many applications for packaging.”
Growth opportunities are top priority as Madel eyes the industry. He says he would like to see companies “demonstrate what their workplace environment is like, how much freedom you have and how much growth is available once you get there.”
Madel says he also looks for engaging and impactful work, hoping to “really put your mind to work and see your projects come to fruition.”
Race participant Jessie Imorde, also from Virginia Tech, picked up an interest in packaging through her school’s majors fair. She says getting attention from young engineers like her might be as simple as “explaining how things work,” as she had been introduced to several unfamiliar products at the show.
Imorde stresses the importance of “making the industry more well-known, because people don’t really know what packaging is.”
Aidyn Voeltz, a sophomore at Northwood Tech in New Richmond, Wis., first entered engineering to learn about wiring and mechanics, but became fascinated by robotics in his time at school.
Stepping onto the floor at PACK EXPO, “It’s almost overwhelming how much stuff is here, it’s unreal what you can learn just by connecting with companies, talking with people, and even just seeing most of this stuff,” says Voeltz.
Packaging appeals to Voeltz for the variety of technologies and disciplines involved, with a chance to focus on wiring panels, programming, mechanical engineering, and more.
“The room for growth, the different opportunities, obviously all the different directions you can go, it’s really amazing,” he says. “I never thought anything of it until I got into the program, and now it’s bigger and better than I could ever imagine.”
Zachary Weston, a Virginia Tech senior in the race, was drawn to packaging for the opportunity to have an impact on the environment.
“I want to be able to make something that contributes to the world,” Weston says. “With packaging, the ability to cut down on these single-use plastics, or at least reduce their lifespan on this earth, is making a tremendous difference. Even if you’re just altering a few SKUs for a company, that’s thousands and thousands of pounds of plastic.”
Packaging design is what drew Virginia Tech student Joy Mendoza to the race. Packaging appeals to her in that it is “so interdisciplinary, from engineering, supply chain, to graphic arts.”
While packaging struck Mendoza as a great career option, “I think a lot of people aren’t aware that going into the package industry is possible,” she says.
Sustainability should also be at the forefront for brands, Mendoza says. She sees her generation focusing on environmentally friendly solutions, and more companies following suit with green innovations.