Recruitment issues in packaging. – Overview
The boundaries of what constitutes the packaging industry can be difficult to pin down with significant overlap with print and engineering sectors. However whichever way you look at it it’s a big sector. Some estimates place Packaging as the 9th largest manufacturing industry in the UK, turning over £8.5 billion, with circa 2,500 companies employing 150,000 people.
Alongside leaps in innovation recent years have seen consolidation, outsourcing, off-shoring and a rise in immigrant workers and the trend continues. The industry as a whole faces challenges from all sides, prices pressure and packaging waste campaigners to name but two. However packaging remains a vital and integral part of our lives. Innovation and advances in packaging have reduced waste in terms of spoilage of all kinds of everyday goods from food and pharmaceuticals to consumer electronics.
There is no doubt therefore that despite what the doomsayers may have you believe the packaging industry is here to stay.
For those in packaging development times have been unsettling. Whilst 2 years ago we saw many end user companies making senior pack development staff redundant, pushing innovation back to suppliers, the last 12 months have seen more jobs go and some go overseas. This off-shoring has in part been as a result of moving to lower cost countries but also includes centralisation of development at company HQ’s either in Europe or the USA; prime examples include agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies.
For others, consolidation like the Reckitt Benckiser takeover of Boots resulted in numerous redundancies in packaging development.
On the supply side certain sectors have faired worse than others with insolvency and merger, with the attendant redundancies, being the order of the day in the flexibles sector.
Across the industry as a whole, despite redundancies, there remains skill shortages; typically in specialist sector specific roles. In plastics these include technicians in blow moulding and toolmaking, in corrugated it is corrugator operators and 3D structural designers, in printed packaging its Artpro operators.
As with all industries, filling these skills gaps and providing the next generation is a serious issue. Whilst there is no shortage of colleges running packaging relevant courses, be they design, materials or engineering; not to mention the availability of the Packaging Diploma and the Masters, often the difficult to fill roles are in operations and require hands on training.
Many employers have very good training provision but struggle to find suitable trainees; often citing attitude and expectation as problem areas. Whether it is policy, placing such an emphasis on university education or personal preferences there needs to be a shift in expectation and a recognition of the value of skilled and semi skilled labour.
There is no doubt that if these vacancies are not filled by home grown talent the vacuum will be filled by workers from overseas, particularly Eastern Europe.
The evidence, supported by several of our clients, is that these workers are very well educated and trained, they speak good English and are very hardworking and eager to learn. We had one candidate who literally travelled the length and breadth of the country, South East, South West, North West and Scotland, for interviews for a position paying circa £20,000. In the end the candidate had a choice of job offers.
Traditionally a career in packaging technology was founded on excellent training grounds in end users such as Boots, Marks and Spencer and Glaxo Smith Kline. Times have changed and whilst such employers are still providing outstanding training and in many cases are still seen as “CV must haves“ the supply side is playing a more significant role with many suppliers developing “design centres” to differentiate themselves with customers.
At a management level some companies are starting to look outside the usual suspects and focus on best practice skills, say perhaps from the automotive industry, rather than industry specific knowledge.
It is clear that there is no fixed pattern in employment issues across all sectors and all levels. The industry faces competitive pressure from all directions and some companies and even perhaps some sectors will go to the wall as far as a UK base is concerned. That said packaging is here to stay; it is far too integral to our day to day lives for it to be otherwise. The successful companies will be those that innovate product, service or both to offer the highest value to customers at the most reasonable cost. These companies will continue to provide exciting and rewarding careers and ultimately will find the right staff; the questions is will they be home grown or from overseas?