Packagers wrapped up in their positions

Daphne Allen

December 22, 2015

9 Min Read
Packagers wrapped up in their positions

Most healthcare packaging professionals aren't looking for new jobs. But could a merge-happy industry or competitive salaries put packagers on the move?

A majority of the respondents to Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News' first annual salary survey are quite satisfied with the industry and their current jobs. Nearly 75% of the respondents have been involved with healthcare product packaging for more than five years, with 50% involved for more than 10 years. Only 10% are actively looking for new jobs. Clearly, healthcare product packagers are quite pleased with their positions.

Healthcare company mergers and acquisitions, however, may shortly shake up this stable landscape—but not in the traditional sense of creating intense competition for packaging jobs. A number of survey respondents wrote that mergers and acquisitions could affect their compensation over the next year. But recruiters say that despite the high incidence of mergers and acquisitions, there are numerous job opportunities for packaging engineers, so many may begin to compare their current positions to those newly available.

Survey respondents reported an average salary of $70,900 and have been involved with healthcare packaging for 11.3 years. To help readers compare salaries in the packaging industry by job function, region, and other factors, we present the results using charts and figures. On page 14 we've listed by region the average salary, raise, number of hours worked per week, and length of time at current employer. On page 15 you'll find average salary comparisons by type of organization, company sales volume, primary job function, years in industry, level of responsibility, number of employees supervised, and decision-making influence. On the following pages, we've listed results for each of three job functions—engineering, R&D/package design, and production/manufacturing/QA/QC.


Respondent job satisfaction could be attributed to the value healthcare companies are increasingly placing on packaging. "There's a growing trend in companies realizing that a packaging engineer is a necessary function to have on staff," writes one survey respondent. As healthcare companies come to realize that packaging can help increase product safety, drug compliance, and product sales as well as reduce counterfeiting, pilfering, and product costs, more and more of them are dedicating whole departments entirely to packaging. Says Rick Reynolds, technical director of Cadquest Inc. (Tampa, FL), a job recruiter for the packaging industry: "There are more dedicated packaging engineers than ever before. There are more jobs than there are people."

Walter Ellis, president of Pack Staff (Oostburg, WI), a company that routinely works to recruit packagers for pharmaceutical firms, says that "Once a packager is working in the pharmaceutical industry, he or she tends to stay there." He says the candidates are relatively stable and satisfied, so they are "difficult to entice away from their jobs."


A number of respondents also indicated that their current career conditions were favorable because of pending new product launches. "Our product is due to be released in the fall of 1999; the acceptance of our product in the marketplace will directly affect my personal compensation," says one respondent.


The increasing complexity of today's healthcare products may also be increasing the need for packaging engineers. "Engineering is playing a new role in packaging," says Reynolds. "The more complex products become to package, the more there is a need for an engineer."

The survey results attest to the new role engineering plays in healthcare packaging. Of the three job functions surveyed, engineering respondents receive the lowest average annual salary of $62,100 and on average have been in the industry the least amount of time—only 42% have been involved with healthcare packaging for 10 years or more. Also, out of the three job functions, engineering has the fewest female packaging professionals. JoAnn Hines, executive director of the trade association Women in Packaging (WIP), expects that to change. "More and more women are moving into the industry." Hines cites recent statistics that show that 40 to 50% of today's packaging science graduates are women.


Respondents speak of a "general shortage" of high-quality engineers, which translates to a better job market for talented and experienced packaging engineers. "Currently, it's difficult to find high-quality engineers, so the salaries are up," indicates one respondent.

The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) understands that it is difficult for companies to find qualified packaging engineers. Currently working with 30 colleges and technical schools, the association is training and educating mechanics and technicians qualified to build and operate packaging machinery as well as engineers and four-year packaging program graduates who understand packaging applications.


A number of respondents indicated that mergers and acquisitions will affect their compensation over the next year. Traditionally, such transactions routinely place at a disadvantage those employees who are closer to retirement age or who have widely available skills. But job recruiters say that despite the increase in the number of mergers and acquisitions, the number of packaging jobs in the healthcare industry is not diminishing, nor are all the jobs filled. According to Ellis, the demand for packaging professionals actually exceeds the supply significantly.

Hines says that mergers and acquisitions are causing "tremendous turmoil in industry. It's a problem when multiple people with the same skills now work for the same company."


However, a surplus of packagers, which can usually be expected during a period of intense merging, just isn't there. Ellis, for instance, is currently working to recruit packagers for a half a dozen positions, and he says that some of his clients—the big pharmaceutical firms—have had to start considering increasing their salaries in order to attract candidates.

Ken Altreuter, president of the Altco Group (Edison, NJ), also sees an increase in salaries. "For some project engineers who can really significantly affect the profitability of the company, I have seen starting salaries of $85,000, plus a bonus and large sign-on," he explains. Such increases may also be attributed to competition from outside the industry. "The personal product companies are bidding higher salaries and titles for the same highly effective packaging engineers. To compete without damaging their own personnel structures, healthcare companies need to consider offering cross-functional development, appropriate performance incentives, and sign-on bonuses." The packaging industry in general has already taken note: in its 1999 Packaging Productivity Trends Indicator survey, PMMI found that 80% of the respondents currently provide employees with training that involves skill enhancement.


Interestingly, half of all the packaging professionals who themselves have contacted Ellis for positions are anticipating some sort of plant closure, whether because of a merger or consolidation. However, instead of being senior-level employees who fear being forced into early retirement, they tend to be "junior people in the industry." Ellis believes this is because newer, younger packaging professionals tend to be on the move more than their older, more-experienced counterparts. "People who have been in the industry for a while tend to wait out mergers before making a move," he says.

Recruiters have mixed feelings about packaging professionals who are constantly changing jobs. Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents have worked for two or fewer firms during the past five years and more than half for only one firm. These numbers don't surprise Hines. "I have found that the average female packaging professional has worked for two companies in the last five years. It used to be that if you didn't stay at your job for 10 years, you were considered a job-hopper. Now, if you haven't had more than one job in 10 years, you aren't a go-getter," she says. Keeping an eye on the job market has its benefits. "Fifty percent of our association's chapter officers have changed jobs in the last couple of years—and they all have better jobs now."


However, there is a downfall to changing jobs frequently. Ellis says that employers don't like to see job changes every two to three years. "It is a pattern that employers get concerned about."

Christine Keough, a recruiter for Alexander Marketing Group (Chicago), says employers "don't want to invest in training and orienting employees and then have them leave shortly after."

Packaging professionals may benefit from their employers' dislike of finding and training new employees. Reynolds says healthcare companies are enticing their employees to stay at their jobs. "It is a bear to train new people, and it can cost twice as much money," he says. "I've had three instances during the past month in which I've found new positions for employees and their existing employers have counteroffered."


Also, there is a high demand for those employees who have worked at their jobs for a long time and have skills that can only be developed while on the job. "Skills have diminished. The number of employees who have a lot of on-the-job knowledge is going down," says Ellis. He says that it is especially challenging to find pharmaceutical packaging professionals who have a lot of machinery experience.


Employment prospects for healthcare product packaging engineers are positive, despite the recent flurry of mergers and acquisitions. Even managed care, which for a few years now has been forcing healthcare product suppliers to reduce costs, has yet to decrease the number of opportunities for packaging professionals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment will grow in the health service industry at a rate of 68%, increasing from 1,172,000 jobs in 1996 to a projected 1,968,000 jobs in the year 2006. Think of all the packaged medical devices and drugs those healthcare workers will need!


The data for this year's survey were obtained during a mail survey of PMP News subscribers. The survey was designed jointly by PMP News and Readex Inc. (St. Paul, MN) and conducted March through May of this year. Surveys were mailed to 750 subscribers who represent more than 10,000 individuals. The sample was limited to only those with one of these job functions: engineering, design, science, production, or operations. Out of the 750 mailed surveys, 356 returned usable responses, representing a response rate of 47%. The results presented in this article are based on the 312 respondents who indicated that they work full time for a medical device manufacturer, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, an in vitro diagnostic manufacturer, or a nutritional supplement manufacturer.

Because usable returns were received from less than half the survey sample, the possibility exists that those who did not respond might have answered differently from those who did. Results should be interpreted with this in mind. The margin of error for percentages based on 312 usable responses is ±5.5% at the 95% confidence level.

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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