Green Bay, WI 54229 USA
WS Packaging Group, Inc. is a major player within the label printing landscape in North America and beyond. The company has a coast-to-coast presence, and is highly involved in advancing and contributing to the overall health of the industry. In particular, at its Algoma, WI facility, WS Packaging Group is taking a proactive approach toward addressing what has come to be known as the label industry’s “workforce crisis.”
For decades, flexography has been the go-to technology when it comes to pressure sensitive label manufacturing. The process itself evolved over the years, and flexo press operators became thought of as skilled craftsman – artisans – and not merely seen as manufacturing workers.
The “workforce crisis,” as it’s been called, involves the relationship between the retiring workforce of qualified, highly trained flexo press operators and the difficulty converters are having in finding suitable replacements to take their place. The Millennial generation and even those younger in age, such as today’s high school students, may perceive careers and jobs working for a manufacturing company as less than desirable. To some, manufacturing positions are viewed as manual labor jobs, characterized by low wages and long hours working in a “factory.”
Those that have worked in the label converting industry know this is not the case. The majority of North American label manufacturing facilities today are streamlined operations that use efficient, state-of-the-art technology in order to produce pressure sensitive labels and related products for both large and small brands alike.
WS Packaging has been manufacturing labels in Algoma for 52 years. Here and nationwide, the company produces labels of the highest quality. However, the leadership team at its Algoma location has acknowledged the current state of affairs regarding workforce and recruitment challenges, and is going above and beyond to not only educate the young people within the community it calls home, but also provide flexographic training, recruitment, and the necessary tools that will keep the company thriving today and in the future.
Despite the proliferation of digital technology, flexography still accounts for the vast majority of the narrow web labels printed today. Adopting a digital press is just one move that can potentially position a career in the industry as viable and attractive to students and those still undecided on a career choice. An even bolder move is using your experienced personnel and current flexo assets to show the up-and-coming workforce just what the industry is all about.
The WS Packaging Group facility in Algoma plays an integral role within the community, employing about 450 of its residents. Being such a vital lifeline, the label company saw an opportunity to not only give back to Algoma, but also help open doors to its youth while establishing a blueprint for WS Packaging Algoma’s future workforce.
Corie Zimmerman is production manager – prepress and production, for WS Packaging’s Algoma facility, the area where he was born and raised. A town of no more than 3,200 residents, Algoma epitomizes small-town life in the heart of America, about a 45-minute drive from Green Bay. There are no traffic lights in Algoma, and the area is best known for its wealth of outdoor activities such as hiking, hunting and fishing.
Just over five years ago, Algoma community leaders came together to form “Live Algoma,” a coalition of people trying to improve the health and well-being of the town’s residents.
“Giving back to the community was something we at WS Packaging had talked about and wanted to get involved in for a long time,” Zimmerman explains. “We’d discussed getting a label press up and running in the high school, but it never worked out. But when a new school district administrator came in – one with a huge vision – we saw an opportunity.”
Following the donation of a substantial sum of money, a state-of-the-art wellness center was built, as well as a technology education center, adjacent to the high school. “The ‘Live Algoma’ vision was taking shape,” Zimmerman says, who has spent all 25 years of his professional career with WS Packaging Group. He adds, “All for education purposes, several machines started getting installed at the center, including many tied to the machining industry, such as CNC and welding machines.
“This was something we wanted to be a part of,” Zimmerman says. “So we had one of our Mark Andy 4150s taken out of commission, and we paid to have it installed at the facility by the high school. We started teaching kids all about the flexo printing process, covering every aspect of the workflow. But we took things a step further. Every day, we send one of our press operators there, and he’s running live jobs for WS Packaging customers.”
What began as somewhat of a casual learning environment has evolved into an immersive, all-encompassing label converting curriculum. Its latest endeavor is having students create a label from start to finish. Explains Zimmerman, “We want them to learn every aspect of the process – from label design, platemaking, estimating, purchasing and even sales and marekting.”
An Investment in the future
When Algoma High School students come to school, a select group of them are afforded a special opportunity.
Zimmerman explains, “These kids have the chance to come and ‘play around’ with flexo label printing equipment. They are learning the ins and outs of flexography – working with our WS Packaging press operator step-by-step and hands-on.”
This educational environment is much more than just a high school class. In fact, it is the foundation for the newest members of WS Packaging’s workforce.
“We’re now in on our third year of doing this, and thus far we have hired between 10-15 kids either directly or indirectly from this program partnership,” he adds. “It’s also working indirectly, where we’ve given kids some exposure to label printing and what we do as a company. Upon graduation, they come back and work for us full-time.
“One of our more recent success stories is with a student named Dakota Meyer, who was in a press apprenticeship role,” Zimmerman adds. “Dakota gained so much valuable press operation experience that after only six months, he had earned himself a press operator position at WS Packaging.”
Zimmerman notes that the program isn’t for everyone. “It’s a specific group of kids we’re targeting – perhaps those that are not necessarily college-bound. While it’s fair to say no young person today dreams of becoming a label printer, they are enticed by having the opportunity of staying here and living the Algoma lifestyle – which has a lot to do with family, and being outdoors.”
Zimmerman and his colleagues at WS Packaging in Algoma are especially proud of the role they are playing in providing kids with exposure to professions and opportunities in life they may not have considered. “We want kids to look at different careers. It may not necessarily be at WS Packaging, but perhaps in the town itself. What we are doing here is not short-term for us, but it is a long-term investment in our future.”
The early results equate to a competitive advantage for WS Packaging Group in Algoma. Zimmerman says, “Our turnover rate is basically none. We get people that are already here, we treat them right, and they want to stay here.”
For Zimmerman, who moonlights as the high school boys basketball coach, the project and improving the lives of young people is something he is passionate about. The same goes for Mark Zastrow, the WS Packaging Group press operator that’s devoted to the program. He also happens to be the girls basketball coach.
Participation in the program is a huge investment for WS Packaging Group, but it’s one that’s paying off.
“We have done the math,” Zimmerman says. “And the program is only getting stronger. We’re furthering our understanding of the wants and needs of the kids in our area, while giving them the proper training to be successful not only from a WS Packaging standpoint, but also from a community standpoint.”
Zimmerman concludes, “We are by far the largest employer in town. The city depends on WS Packaging and we depend on the city. Our future depends on our ability to attract, train, and retain local talent who want to live the ‘small town’ lifestyle.”