With skilled labor harder than ever to find, it’s everyone’s responsibility to encourage young people to see a medical packaging career as interesting and lucrative. This is the philosophy behind a 30-year relationship between Prent Corporation (Janesville, WI) and University of Wisconsin-Stout (Menomonie, WI). Together they’ve supported hundreds of young professionals entering into packaging, much to the benefit of the students, the school, and the industry as a whole.
Prent is a medical packaging thermoform company that strives to bring more talented people into the industry. Interest in Stout began three decades ago when Prent founder, Joe Pregont, graduated from Stout in 1981 with a degree in industrial technology with a packaging concentration. Since then, Prent has worked with Stout to host career fairs, sponsor scholarships, employ interns and co-ops, lend employees for teaching and guest lecturing, sponsor Packaging Jamborees and trips to Pack Expo, and help create a state-of-the-art packaging lab.
Over the years, Prent and Stout have learned lessons about the best ways to encourage students to join the industry and make it better, and they have tips on how to help others do the same.
Tip 1: Don’t just throw money at it
While financial support is important to support schools, it takes more than a one-time donation to make a real difference in an education program. While Prent donated more than $1 million to Stout’s new high-tech packaging lab, involvement went beyond writing a check. Don Handrow, vice president of product development at Prent and a Stout graduate (’92), worked with equipment vendors to get better pricing.
“Prent didn't just give us money to buy equipment,” said Michelle Dingwall, senior development officer for the Stout University Foundation. “They negotiated directly with manufacturers to buy the equipment and donate it to the lab so a $40,000 piece of equipment was reduced to $30,000. They stretched the dollars even further by leveraging the relationships they have. There's tremendous value in companies utilizing their vendor relationships that way. We would not have been able to do that on our own.”
The newly renovated lab, which features equipment for packaging design, manufacturing, and testing, helps students learn on current technology to match what the industry is doing now and in the future. Seeing the lab as an investment in Stout’s future, part of Prent’s donation is dedicated to an endowment to keep equipment updated in years to come.
Plus, the lab is a great selling point for Stout, giving the school an edge when recruiting new students.
“We have more labs than classrooms because we want our students to get practical hands-on experience on current technology before they graduate. They are replicating what they will be doing as professionals. The lab helps us recruit extra students every year because they can see how up-to-date the college is,” said Charles Bomar, dean of Stout’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Management.
Above: Stout’s packaging lab has brand new equipment for students to learn on, including a MACC Vacuum Thermoform Machine. Image courtesy of Prent.
Tip 2: Sharing knowledge is powerful
Students benefit significantly when professionals in the industry are guest speakers, teachers, and advisors because it’s providing first-hand knowledge that goes beyond theory.
Stout has a Packaging Advisory Board composed of industry professionals who recommend ways to keep the program relevant. Handrow and other board members recognized the need for a medical packaging course, which was added to the program in 2013. Handrow has been a co-writer, contributor, and industry expert lecturer for the medical packaging course, which provides practical knowledge about the special requirements for medical devices and pharmaceuticals packaging and the latest in package systems and procedures. Prent employees are regular guest speakers at the medical packaging class every semester.
“We have one of the only medical packaging courses in the country because of our professional collaborators who provide real-time knowledge of what's going on in the industry,” Bomar said. “They come to class and talk about how rules have changed and what things really look like in the industry. That's an absolutely incredible experience for students.”
Stout plans to expand its medical packaging program in the near future as more young people realize the exciting career opportunities in the industry. Stout has a 99% placement rate for packaging graduates, many of whom get jobs in the Twin Cities area where there’s a hub of medical device manufacturing.
Tip 3: Get hands on
While technology is important, the people factor is also powerful in polytechnic education. Hands-on learning with other people affords a more holistic view of the real working world. Prent has worked with Stout to provide several internships and co-ops per year, putting students in design, product development and tool engineering positions. To date, Prent has had more than 75 Stout interns and co-op students. In some cases, students are hired after graduation. Today there are 17 Stout graduates at Prent, including the president and four vice presidents.
“Many of our students do co-ops at different companies so when they walk out the door at 22 years old, they've had industry experiences and are incredibly prepared.” Bomar said. “They’ve learned a lot between what they learn in class and the industry experiences that they can apply in their careers.”
Another important way to expose students to the full breadth of the packaging industry is to attend Pack Expo, which hosts thousands of exhibitors and dozens of educational sessions from all areas of the market. Prent sponsors a bus to take Stout packaging students to Pack Expo in Chicago so they can gain an understanding of the career possibilities ahead of them.
“It's a great value to the students anytime we can get them into the business world to hear and see how the industry works,” Dingwall said. “When they go to Pack Expo, it’s an eye-opener to see everything the industry is doing. Many times that experience can set the path for a future career that wasn’t even on their radar before they saw it at the show. That can be very exciting.”
The trip to Pack Expo is preceded by a tour at Prent’s headquarters in Janesville to see a real thermoform packaging operation in action, complete with stops in the design and manufacturing areas.
“In the tour, we show them our state-of-the-art equipment with the CNC tool room and our cleanrooms, which are not typical in our industry,” Handrow said. “It’s a benchmark we’ve set in producing packaging for medical and other applications. It’s rewarding to expose students to the nuances of what goes into making an effective packaging solution.”
Above: UW-Stout packaging students and faculty travel to the 2017 Student Packaging Jamboree. The jamboree is an annual event attended by students from top packaging schools in the nation, including UW-Stout, Clemson, Michigan State, RIT, Rutgers and Virginia Tech. Image courtesy of Prent.
Tip 4: Take the long view
The general public doesn’t think about packaging, so students and parents may have never considered a career in the industry. Growing talented professionals of the future takes a longer view that starts by reaching younger people. This includes connecting with high school science teachers and students considering what to do next.
While it’s easy to see the near potential of a high-performing college senior, the greatest potential for impact is with college freshmen.
“Most company-sponsored scholarships start at a junior or senior level when a student is more firmly dedicated to the industry, but we need to get to them sooner,” Dingwall said. “Prent started offering packaging scholarships to Stout sophomores to develop a relationship before young students set their mind to a different career path. We want to reach them earlier and show them the possibilities.”
Once at Stout, students hit the ground running to get fully immersed in the program right way.
“We have a huge commitment to the industry, so even our freshmen are working on projects that industry has brought to the classroom,” Bomar said. “From their first semester, they are in the lab and answering real packaging questions. We must fill the pipeline so the industry can continue to hire the talent they need.”
Developing talent is a long game. It’s not realistic to expect an immediate ROI on education and recruiting efforts today, but the benefits will grow over time.
“There's no guarantee that a Stout student will end up working at Prent, but that new graduate is still benefiting the industry as a whole, and that’s good for everyone. It’s why we’ve committed to this long-time relationship with Stout,” Handrow said.
Even companies with limited resources can help support a university. They can connect with schools and students by offering a little bit of their time, talent, and money.
“With exposure to packaging professionals, current technology, and industry events, students at Stout learn how to quickly adapt to technology changes to become the innovators of tomorrow who drive the industry. They understand how business works and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work,” Bomar said. “Together with our industry partners, we are investing in the long-term future of the packaging industry.”