By Betsy Simon
Oct 1, 2020
Terre Haute native Cole Weathers’ return to school at Indiana State University more than a year ago meant his plate would be full; as a full-time custodian with Facilities Management, a part-time student, and the assistant lab manager for the Indiana Packaging Research and Development Center (IPRDC). But it’s a move that has potential to help him climb the career ladder, and he’s jumped in with both feet.
I understand that you’re a non-traditional student. Talk about your journey to getting a bachelor’s degree from Indiana State’s packaging program.
I started taking classes in Indiana State’s business administration program in 2010. When I got my general education courses done and was working on my business courses, I could not see any real path to employment that would be fulfilling for me. I decided to leave the university and began work as a caterer for Sodexo, where I stayed for a year and a half. After that, I began work as an electric meter reader with Olameter, a contracting company for Duke Energy. It was a decent job that I thought could lead to employment with the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), but about a year into working there they changed our pay structure from an hourly wage to a piece-meal system. As a result, my pay was effectively cut in half. One day after I left a shift, I stopped into Sonka’s Irish pub and struck up a conversation with a lady at the bar. Eventually the conversation led to my situation at work, and she revealed that she was the department chair of multidisciplinary studies at Indiana State, Donna Selman. She told me about the tuition waiver that ISU offers to their full-time employees and told me that I could use her as a reference if I decided to pursue working for the university.
Long story short, I ended up getting hired on as a custodian for facilities management and worked for about a year before I decided to take advantage of the tuition waiver and return to school. As a custodian for Facilities Management, I’m out of bed every morning at 3 a.m. and at work by 4 a.m. It is exhausting. But despite the long hours and hard work, I know I am very fortunate. My workplace is right across the street from where my classes are. My custodial supervisors (Karen Smith and Bertie Budd) have been extremely flexible and supportive of me taking classes during my working hours. And I get to work for one of the most supportive and industry-connected professors I have ever met in Brian James. I definitely lucked into a special opportunity here!
When did you enroll in the packaging program? What made you decide to major in packaging?
I wasn’t sure about what I should major in when I returned to school, but I knew I wanted something that would connect me directly with employers and better job opportunities after graduation. While browsing the different majors offered by ISU, I scrolled past the Packaging Engineering Technology program and remembered hearing about it during my freshman orientation in 2010. I began to read about it and saw that they boasted having a 100% job placement rate for their graduates. This piqued my interest, so I enrolled and took two classes during the 2017-2018 school year. I finally took my first Packaging class in the fall of 2018.
Talk about the effort you were involved in to help local food banks after COVID-19 hit last spring.
After students had been sent home, we began talking to food banks in the Wabash Valley found out that a lot of them were struggling to get the supplies they needed to meet the demand they were experiencing. Wesley got in contact with Terre Haute Catholic Charities and found that they were about 1,000 boxes short from where they would be in a normal year. That’s when Brian, my classmate Wesley (Cottrell), and I teamed up with Buckeye Corrugated in Indianapolis. At that time, I was the only worker permitted to be in the packaging lab, so I received the shipments of boxes from Buckeye Corrugated and helped the guys from Catholic Charities to load the two pallets into their truck, which contained 500 boxes each.
What other experiences/project/mentors have you had in the packaging program that will help you in your future?
What first made me decide to stick with the packaging program were all the events the packaging industry hosted for students. My first semester back at school, we attended a golf outing hosted by the Institute of Packaging Professionals- Central Indiana Chapter. I got to play with two younger industry professionals and learned a bit about what to expect when I get my first professional job. Everyone who attended got to play a free round at a beautiful course and enjoy free drinks and a free dinner. It was a lot of fun.
That fall, we went to a packaging convention in Chicago, Pack Expo, where I went from not really knowing about packaging to seeing just how big the industry is. Pack Expo 2018 took place that semester in Chicago. Pack Expo is a yearly packaging trade show that alternates between Chicago and Las Vegas. It was held in McCormick Place, which is a 2.6 million square foot convention center, and the show took over the entire center while it was in town. The scale of the show, the time and effort put into the displays, and the fact that all packaging students in the country were offered free admission and lodging were all extremely exciting to me.
During the summer of 2019, I began work as an intern in the packaging lab under Brian James’ supervision. As a Packaging Engineering Technology major, I am required to complete an internship for the MET 351 class. During the summer term, Brian and I worked extremely hard making improvements to the lab. For example, we built all new desks for student seating as well as the computer station, improved our sample cutting workflow by installing new shelving for our large corrugated boards, and installed a new vibration table.
Throughout the summer, we also received a steady amount of packaging testing projects from real companies in Indiana such as Taghleef Industries, Thyssen Krupp, WEG Automotive, and Welch Packaging. I learned how to operate all the lab equipment, how to choose a testing standard that applies to the testing that would need to be performed, how to perform a wide variety of testing procedures, and how to document the findings and write reports for the companies who requested the testing. I was given a lot of responsibility for these projects, and fortunately I managed to catch on quickly. This experience led to Brian hiring me as the assistant lab manager.
What is your role as assistant lab manager in the IPRDC (Indiana Packaging Research and Development Center) packaging lab?
I’m the first or second point of contact for companies that are seeking testing or other services from the IPRDC. Our testing samples often arrive by the palletized unit, so I ensure that the samples have arrived safely, perform the testing and report back to companies, along with the help of two student employees. I am also responsible for managing several internal projects within the lab. I am currently working on developing standard operating procedures for all our lab machinery, and just completed a project for WEG Automotive that will help them maximize their warehousing space for their stock of electric motors. In addition to internal and external projects, I oversee the general cleanliness and safety of the lab.
What is something that students should know about packaging that they might not realize?
Packaging is a very special program at Indiana State. The packaging industry generates roughly $900 billion per year, and our university is one of only 8 universities in the entire nation that offer a four-year degree in packaging engineering of any sort. Furthermore, we are the only packaging program in the nation that boasts ABET accreditation. I would tell anyone who has a creative interest or desire to be in manufacturing, engineering, or the technology field that the packaging industry is worth looking into. Packaging engineering students are in extremely high demand after they graduate. At every industry event that I have attended, every professional that I have met has told me that the biggest need in the packaging industry is new talent. There truly are more jobs available today than there are graduates to fill them. Indiana State’s program has a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates, and there are so many avenues you can go into. I think people tend to get tunnel vision when thinking about careers in technology. They tend to only think of computer science, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering, but there are so many other options for a good paying job within the packaging industry that simply go unnoticed. Whether your interests are in graphic design, structural design, testing and analysis, sales/marketing, or you simply want a great-paying job with great job security, there is a career opportunity in the packaging industry for you.