Industry Market Trends

Filling the Talent Pipeline in the Packaging Machinery Industry

Oct 07, 2013

Manufacturers of packaging and processing machinery are feeling the pinch of the widening talent gap in their industry, according to PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Consequently, the industry group has launched an initiative to get member companies to come together and attract young workers to the field.

Much has been said about the looming threat that is manufacturing's talent shortage. An oft-cited 2011 report by Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers' (NAM) Manufacturing Institute makes clear that a highly skilled, flexible workforce is the most important factor in manufacturers' effectiveness -- well above such factors as new product innovation and increased market share. Yet 67 percent of manufacturers reported a moderate-to-severe shortage of available, qualified workers, and 56 percent said they expect the shortage to worsen in the next few years.

In's new 2013 Industry Market Barometer, too, manufacturers warned that a lack of talent from "rising generations" threatens the sector's ability to meet future economic growth.

It's a struggle that carries over into packaging and processing machinery, according to PMMI.

To tackle what it sees as a shrinking pool of qualified workers, PMMI has launched JumPPstart, an initiative that calls on member companies to come together and help avoid a future talent shortage by attracting young workers to the field.

"PMMI members tell us they face a lack of qualified candidates to fill openings and needs," Maria Ferrante, vice president of education and workforce development at PMMI, told IMT Career Journal. "The pain point, they say, is finding people with the right skills who want to work in a manufacturing environment and understand that the perception of factory work as dirty, hot, and boring is the opposite of the truth: Machinery plants are clean and air conditioned, and there are new machines, emerging technologies, and challenges every day."

Indeed, the public's lack of understanding of modern manufacturing is a critical underlying challenge in creating interest in manufacturing careers and meeting future workforce needs.

For years, one of the major challenges that U.S. manufacturers have faced is improving its image, especially among younger people. Modern manufacturing environments are commonly thought of as dark, dangerous places for low-skilled workers, when, in fact, today's manufacturing environments are sleek, technology-driven places that are filled with highly trained, well-paid employees who work on state-of-the-art equipment.

"Kids have no idea how the Cheerios get in the box, so our starting point is exposure and education," Timm Johnson, chair of PMMI's Education & Workforce Development Committee, said in a statement.

While the public perception of manufacturing work and the overall availability of qualified workers are of national concern, each JumPPstart group is a local effort. Employers in packaging machinery and processing typically hire from a pool of local workers, and because every locality is unique, only local employers can truly understand what will work in their area. That is why, for JumPPstart to work, "the feet on the ground need to be local," Ferrante said.

"Each group will work independently, and they'll implement tactics that work best in their neighborhoods, states, and regions," she said. "Our intent is that these local groups will learn from one another by sharing success stories, challenges, and best practices."

Much of the infrastructure for educating the future packaging and processing tech workforce is in place, but there is room for improvement both in creating interest in relevant education/training programs and lining them up with the needs of industry, according to PMMI.

The needs of industry today are noticeably underscored in mechatronics -- a combination of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, controls engineering, and computer science. Mechatronics is a knowledge set used by engineering technicians to assure the automation that drives modern manufacturing delivers its potential for higher productivity and output.

These skills are of particular demand within the nation's packaging and processing industry, according to PMMI.

"These are the skills needed in today's industrial maintenance operations -- and the skills that will help manufacturers remain competitive," Ferrante said of mechatronics. "Not all that long ago, technicians and engineers could be fairly specialized in their skills. A technician might be computer savvy but not mechanically savvy or vice versa.

"That's no longer the case," she continued. "Automation and control systems, among other things, make mechatronics a must-have skill set."

Ferrante noted that PMMI has built its mechatronics certificates on "a foundation of what industry needs today and will continue to need, by working in partnership with our industry."

The Mechatronics Certificate Program is the result of a partnership between PMMI, the Mid-Atlantic Mechatronics Advisory Council, and several packaging and technical schools. Through a series of assessments based on industry-developed competencies, PMMI's Mechatronics Certificate Program helps manufacturers advance the skills of their workforce.

"Working within the packaging and processing industry, PMMI has created a suite of standardized tests to gauge abilities," Ferrante said. "The tests are third-party validated for an extra guarantee of a thorough, fair, and effective evaluation that will deliver clear markers of competencies and areas of opportunity."

The U.S. Department of Labor published its mechatronics competency model in 2009 with the help of PMMI and other key stakeholders. Two years later, PMMI's mechatronics certificate program was added to the Manufacturing Institute's Manufacturing Skills Certification Systems (SCS) offerings. PMMI works in partnership with NAM as part of the NAM-endorsed SCS to ensure these tests stay aligned with current manufacturing needs.

This summer, PMMI members' JumPPstart groups met for the first time to brainstorm ways to reach out to local educators. The two groups -- outside Milwaukee and Minneapolis -- are starting out by building and strengthening their relationships with college and university programs.

"Technical schools and community colleges are the institutions training our up-and-coming workforce," Ferrante said. "We encourage them to partner with PMMI, to align their curricula to the standards our industry has created.

"If a program teaches its students the technical skills they need to pass our mechatronics certificate tests, those students will have [what] workers need to be credible in the field and help keep machinery running smoothly 24/7."