Job Prospects Look Good for Students in MSU’s School of Packaging

If it were a package, the wrapping would be plain brown paper. Flanked by two imposing buildings, Communications Arts and Sciences and Natural Sciences is a modest single-story brick building, home of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging.

Plain on the outside, but expansive on the inside, the school is among the academic jewels of the university. One of only about a dozen academic institutions offering degrees in the art and science of packaging, MSU’s program was the first in the field and is certainly among the best.

“By a considerable amount, we are the largest packaging program in the U.S., and we are the only one that offers a PhD.,” said Sue Selke, the school’s director.

By the standards of MSU, with an enrollment approaching 50,000 students, the School of Packaging is small. It has about 950 students, most in bachelor programs. But its reach is global as is its focus. Packaging in one form or another affects everyone, everywhere.
Students who graduate from the program are highly recruited by the full spectrum of businesses: food, drug/pharmaceutical/medical, automotive/electronics/aerospace, cosmetic/toiletries – virtually any and all producers of goods and materials.

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The skills students require and acquire in their courses reflect the breadth of the industries that seek them out and the many challenges that are core to the packaging discipline. It blends academic studies with extensive work in laboratories that duplicate facilities, materials and equipment commonly associated with packaging.

The building hosts a large workshop for basic materials testing, as well as equipment that measures shocks and vibration to determine how goods survive during transport. Factors taken into consideration when testing the materials are how each product is affected differently when moved by rails or road, or big and small trucks. Other laboratories in the facility have computers that simulate the spectrum of packing challenges.

In the broadest sense, study in the School of Packaging entails the basic principles of packaging and use of materials – glass, paper, plastic and metals. There is design and prototyping, economics and cost controls, environmental and life cycle issues. More specialized fields delve into print and graphics, robotics, laws and regulations and the unique requirements of industries like food, automotive and medical.

“To add to the level of complexity, the jobs that our students have when they go out of the program may be very, very different from the job they have five, 10 or 20 years down the road,” Selke said.

“They may start out in automotive packaging and 15 years later maybe they are working in medical packaging. Or maybe they are out of packaging altogether and they are in management. One of our goals is certainly to give the students the skills they need for that initial job, but also to give them the tools they need to keep learning.”

If nothing else, MSU’s School of Packaging, which is affiliated with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is grounded firmly in the post-graduation world that its students aspire to work in. It works closely with businesses – often leveraging relationships with those who graduated from its programs. At times, the relationship resembles a partnership.

The ties are reinforced with industry-focused courses and programs for basic and advanced understanding of packaging issues, said Cimberly Weir, the school’s outreach coordinator and assistant director of the Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability.

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The relationship between academia and business helps the school ensure that the skills it teaches are in demand.

“We do interface quite regularly with people from industry to make sure that our educational offerings are on track,” Selke said.

“We need to understand what the industry needs in order to be able to tailor the programs so it meets the broad needs of a university education in general, but also the specific needs of someone who is going to go into the packaging profession.”

For graduates, the profession means entry-level jobs paying $55,000 to $60,000 a year, with higher salaries for students with graduate degrees. And virtually all graduates get jobs.
“We have a 94 percent placement rate,” Weir said.

Pay and job prospects have made packaging an attractive major, and in 2012 the school expanded rapidly, growing from 500 to about 900 students, exceeding its ability to provide high quality education, Selke said.

“That’s why we increased our admission standards for students,” she said. To major in packaging now requires a 3.0 average and a full complement of science and math courses. The standards reflect the academic side of the program.

While the ties to businesses are important, Selke said her department embraces its research mission.

“We take very seriously the need to create new knowledge in the discipline. Sometimes that’s a direct benefit to industry and sometimes they fund it. Sometimes we do things that are more long term. So there is that whole research component that is very important to us as a research university: advancing the field of knowledge in the field,” Selke said. “It is something that is very near and dear to us.”

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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