Any packaging engineer who wants to get and keep a job obviously needs good technical skills. But globalization, evolving business models and increased visibility for packaging as a discipline have made communication-based skills like social media, relationship-building and selling almost as important.
"It's no longer enough to be versed in traditional packaging. The industry is changing. Society is changing, as well," says Oliver Campbell, director of procurement for packaging and packaging engineering at Dell.
The drivers range from global supply chains to demand for greener packaging. Managing global supply chains requires cultural sensitivity, which "inherently involves communication," Campbell says. And with more companies producing annual social-responsibility reports, packaging professionals need to be able to communicate what they do to a non-technical audience.
But, Campbell says, "I'd say the biggest [skills] gap is probably on social media. The reason I say that is because relatively few-although the numbers are growing-really take advantage of it."
Dell's packaging team is highly attuned to social media, with the company's Social Media Command Center in Austin, TX, tracking what's being said. "If somebody is mentioning Dell packaging pretty much anywhere in the world, our social media team will alert me to that. I usually know within several hours and can respond if necessary," Campbell says.
He adds that knowing what consumers, bloggers and thought leaders are saying about Dell packaging "does influence our thinking as we construct our strategic material roadmaps around packaging and what we're going to do in the future."
On the other hand, too much reliance on electronic communication can cause its own problems. Lee Longstreth, director-engineering at TricorBraun, says he's frustrated by the e-heavy communication style he sees in some new hires. In such cases, lack of interpersonal skills may be the underlying weakness.
"The only way you are successful, and you really make an impact for yourself and your company, is to be able to build relationships," Longstreth says. "The problem I see today is that it's all so electronic. ...You can't build a relationship electronically."
With media such as Twitter, texting, instant messaging and even email, "it's all very short. People don't get a feel for what you're saying or what you really mean," he explains. "There's no inflection to your voice, there's no facial expression to give them an idea of what you're getting at, and it's just brutal."
Longstreth advises engineers who are stuck in the e-media rut to meet in person with colleagues and collaborators—or at least pick up the phone—more frequently. These habits serve the double purpose of resolving issues and honing interpersonal skills.
"I'm talking about being able to walk out of your office [and] down the hall into somebody else's office, sit down and resolve a problem," he says. "How many times do we have a problem with the person two offices down and instead of talking to them, we send them an email?"
A way with language
Multilingualism, figuratively and literally, is another increasingly important communication skill. "The big complaint I hear a lot from leaders of organizations is that their packaging people are too technical. They don't speak the business language," says Brian Wagner, vp, consulting services, Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions (PTIS).
He adds, "You have to be multilingual in your own company. There are truly different languages. Marketing speaks a language that manufacturing doesn't understand and vice versa." In fact, packaging professionals are in a position to learn myriad business languages, including those of design, marketing and finance, because they interact with so many different functions within their companies.
Being fluent in languages used in different regions is becoming more useful, as well. "For our Asian-based engineers and designers, basic English skills are needed to help communicate with our international customers. And for our foreign engineers and designers working in Asia, I would suggest learning some Chinese," says Sean Murphy, chief creative officer at Hong Kong-based YFYJupiter.
He adds, "If you're a talented engineer, and you speak English and Chinese or even another language, like German or French, you become more valuable to us because so many of our clients in Asia come from all around the world. These language skills will really bump up your resume with us."
Adaptability is another skill that's becoming more necessary. Like businesspeople in other professions, packaging professionals "need to adjust and be more adaptable to this rapidly changing global marketplace," says Pete Macauley, director, global packaging and sustainability, Abbott Laboratories.
Macauley further notes the value of skills like collaboration, persuasion and negotiation, all of which have a strong communications component.
Packaging professionals have always collaborated with others in their own companies, but now they are collaborating much more with other organizations. "I sit in more meetings today with my peer competitors than I probably did in my first 15 or 20 years in the industry. You have to have that collaborative approach," Macauley says.
Also essential is "the ability to sell your ideas," he adds. "As packaging teams, we always said we want a seat at the table—we need to be more recognized. Well, you look around industry today, and there are more vp-level packaging people than ever before, so we [have] that recognition. Now we've got to be able to sell it. Now we've got to deliver on the concepts."
In addition, negotiation skills are good to have. As with selling, negotiation requires careful communication and the ability to craft win-win solutions.
So where's a packaging professional to go to develop these skills? Those on the executive track may decide to earn an MBA degree. Others may go the adult-education route, taking classes in person or online.
Many colleges and universities offer relevant undergraduate and graduate-level classes through their continuing-ed programs. Stanford University's Continuing Studies course catalog includes topics like "Persuasive Face-to-Face Business Communication," "Coaching Skills for Leaders and Managers" and "Negotiation Mastery: Achieving Outstanding Results and Relationships."
Consultants and industry groups also provide professional-development training. Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions, for example, offers a workshop called "Championing and Selling Packaging."
And companies like Abbott offer in-house training, including cultural-sensitivity classes to prepare packaging professionals for projects in distant lands or with far-flung team members.
Finally, for social media, how-to videos are readily available online (just Google "social media tutorials"). But they may not be necessary. "The beauty of something like Twitter is it's actually very simple. Most people who get on there and start playing with it will grasp it," says Eben Bayer, CEO of Ecovative. "You don't need to be an expert. You just need to show up."
Ecovative, 518-273-3753, www.mushroompackaging.com
Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions, 800-875-0912, www.ptisglobal.com
TricorBraun, 800-325-7782, www.tricorbraun.com
YFYJupiter, 415-409-2540, www.yfyjupiter.com