As college graduations once again approach, packaging students will begin searching for their first industry roles. To gain more insight into the process of securing that first job and applying their knowledge to healthcare packaging, I met up with my good friend and peer, Chris Kelley.
Chris is currently an Associate R&D Packaging Engineer at Coloplast in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Before graduating from University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2021 with a B.S. in packaging, Chris interned with DDL Inc. and Smiths Medical. As a driven, enthusiastic, and intelligent engineer, Chris is certain to be a game changer in the healthcare packaging industry.
What was the process of landing your full-time role after graduation?
Knowing the applicant pool would be active, I started applying for positions at both large and small medical device and pharmaceutical companies. One of those roles was for R&D Packaging Engineer I at Coloplast that I saw on LinkedIn. It called for three to five years of experience. I only had two years under my belt from my internships, so I was happy to get an interview. That conversation went so well that I was offered a job at a step up from the posted position. I accepted an entry level Associate R&D Packaging Engineer role.
Today, I am pleased to be the sole packaging engineer serving with Coloplast’s Interventional Urology R&D team. I work with the team on all new product development projects, and I’m responsible for sterile barrier packaging design, development, and testing activities for all implantable devices within the business unit. This has been a rewarding experience, and I know how fortunate I am to have gotten this opportunity right out of college.
What helped you most when transitioning from student life in college to a profession in packaging?
I would say the transition was easier since I’d interned in the medical device industry. Both of my college positions had strong packaging teams. The level of talent on these teams really helped me achieve the practical knowledge I needed to go from the classroom to the work force.
Having the opportunity to showcase and apply the expanded skills from working with two talented teams prepared me to go from student to contributor and take on greater responsibility. The R&D department at Coloplast has enabled me to be successful by trusting and respecting me as an entry level engineer, yet joining the team with valuable previous industry experiences.
What advice can you give to upcoming graduates?
First, apply for any job that sparks your interest, whether you are technically qualified for it or not. I applied at various medical device and pharmaceutical companies and went far in the interviewing process at many organizations. Meeting people at those companies, even without taking a job, made numerous additions to my professional network as resources. I will be able to continue those relationships in the years ahead.
Secondly, be confident as you embark on the recruitment process. Don’t be shy to pitch yourself and what you’ve learned. Any internships you’ve completed give real-world applications to our studies. You need to have the confidence to walk into a room and say, ‘I know how to do this’ or ‘I will take the initiative to learn more about that.’ Your prospective employer wants to hear that you are willing to do the work to put it all together for them.’
When trying to decide between multiple job offers, take into account which company has the best culture and best work-life balance for you. You have to like where you work. You have to like the people you are working with. There is a lot more to a job than the money, experience, or status of the role.
How are you continuing to educate yourself within the industry now that you are out of university environment?
Since I love medical packaging, I enjoy contributing as a member of the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP), and especially the Medical Device Packaging Technical Committee (MDPTC). I also stay up to date on social media for webinars, awards, and conferences within the healthcare packaging community.
Since we are talking about connections and continuing education, I should add that I took away some great ideas from the Oliver Healthcare Packaging webinar last spring. I watched Kevin Fisher’s mounting card presentation while I was still in school, and I kept the link to that webinar. I am now working on a project that requires a mounting card. So, I talked to Connie Anderson, and she connected me with Kevin’s team. I sent my device to Oliver’s Anaheim site. We got a mounting card built up, and I already have prototypes back at Coloplast.
Never underestimate the value of what you can capture along the way. Learning random facts from webinars may seem pointless at the time, but it might become key to your work a year or two down the road.
Why did the healthcare packaging industry resonate with you?
When getting down the basis for sterile barrier packaging, you talk about infection risk, which can legitimately mean life or death. Patient safety is always on the line. Given that, working in the healthcare industry is much more meaningful in my mind. I get more fulfillment from my work designing sterile barrier packaging systems, because I know it enables our products to safely and effectively serve patients. In my role and this industry, I know that packaging matters.
What excites you most about the future of healthcare packaging?
I find the interconnectivity of the healthcare packaging community exciting. There is always something new emerging to keep me thinking and creating. Knowledge sharing with small companies about the criticality of sterile barrier packaging design helps medical device startups recognize the need to engage a packaging engineer early. Working together from the outset makes the entire process more efficient, from a startup to major medical device players.
The work that we do allows medical devices to be produced in a safe, sterile, and efficacious manner to the patients who need them. There are millions of people who are impacted by sterile barrier packaging every single day.