By Kathy Ruff
“We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.”
— Sheryl Sandberg, author and COO, Facebook
David Kirkland, president of Greiner Packaging USA, Pittston, knows first-hand the value of ambition and progress.
In an ever-changing world of business, Kirkland proved anything is possible with ambition and commitment. It also doesn’t hurt when others believe in you and support you along the way.
Kirkland’s journey began during his senior year in high school. Greiner Packaging UK, a plastic packaging manufacturer based in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, reached out to schools and the community as part of its corporate social responsibility and employee recruitment efforts.
“My final year in school, I happened to visit Greiner as part of a tour,” he said. “In general, in Europe it’s a little bit of a different philosophy. The schools and manufacturing would work closely together. Apprenticeship programs are quite common and normal. Every year the company makes a presentation to the local schools but also there’s an open connection between the schools and the manufacturing companies.”
Kirkland learned a job was available at Greiner and the rest is history.
“I started my career basically out of high school as an apprentice and I managed to work my way up the company,” he said. “I often said when I graduate high school that would potentially be a good place to work. On my graduation, there was an opening. I applied. I finished high school on a Thursday and started with Greiner on Monday.”
That was June 2003. Fast-forward 14 years. That apprentice now holds the title of president of Greiner Packaging USA.
“I have had different positions eventually becoming the CEO of our manufacturing site,” Kirkland said. “If I hadn’t been on that school tour, I probably would havw never ended up working for Greiner. “
Those different positions began as a tooling technician as part of Greiner Gold Program, a tried and proven apprenticeship program that allows employees to earn while they learn.
“The program is not a standard apprenticeship program,” Kirkland said. “It’s not a one-stop shop. A traditional apprenticeship is only focused on one skill, electrical or maybe welding. You only see one area of the business. We are very, very different.”
Kirkland calls it a modern apprenticeship program.
“What that means is you’re not focused on one area for your apprenticeship duration,” he said. “You get two or three years to work in different departments. That gives you a very, very deep understanding of the business from really early on, which is really not common.”
Kirkland’s participation with the apprenticeship program provided a wide and overall picture of the entire business, one that charted the course for his ongoing success.
“Just by natural selection everybody has a slightly different direction that they want to go in and it works,” he said. “We offer in this program diversity. As you’re coming toward the end of the initial apprenticeship, you start to hone in on the specialty area. After two years you say, I really like electronics and this third year you focus 100 percent in electronics but you still have that value of understanding the different areas. That’s really a big difference in our apprenticeship program.”
Kirkland knew from his initial hiring he wanted to get into precision engineering design, one of many areas his apprenticeship allowed him to investigate. During his first 11 years in Northern Ireland, Kirkland learned about the business as a tooling technician before earning promotions to senior technician, moulding manager and engineering manager. By August 2014, Kirkland learned and earned his way to chief operating officer of Greiner Packaging USA, becoming president in January 2017.
“It’s not just a one-way channel,” he said. “As you shine or excel in an area, it’s very easy to see if that’s the direction you’re going to go. I don’t think that’s a common approach in America. It’s a modern apprenticeship with a real good overview of the business, the production and technical side of the business.”
Kirkland’s ambition to pursue precision engineering remained with him, even after his exposure to all the different disciplines available at the company during his initial apprenticeship.
“After I finished my apprenticeship after three years, I focused on precision engineering for the following three years and really started to specialize within the company,” he said. “I didn’t stop after my three years. Greiner continued to support my education development for a further four years.”
During that time, Kirkland moved around to different departments, taking his ambition, commitment and talents with him.
“I wanted to excel myself,” he said. “I wanted to grow. As you prove yourself in a position, there’s always a door that opens for the next promotion. I think that’s important. It’s not finished after three years. I would like to think even today I am not done. We never slow down.”
Kirkland now works to bring the opportunities he received as an apprentice to those in Greiner’s Pittston facility.
“We actually pay the apprentice but also support them financially through their education, which is important,” he said. “Basically, you’re earning while you’re learning. With the Greiner Gold, financially you get paid. You’re making money as you’re learning. You’re not accumulating debt as you’re learning.”
The company’s Greiner Gold apprenticeship program currently has two students enrolled and hopes to have two more beginning in fall. The company partnered with Luzerne County Community College to offer a two-year advanced mechatronics degree as part of a three-year apprenticeship program with mentors and in-house training at Greiner’s Pittston facility.
Participants of the program get paid to work and Greiner pays for the college education.
“You just have to be a good worker, turn up, advance yourself, be committed to the company and there is really no limitation as to where this will go,” he said, a walking example of the possibilities.
“There are many, many doors open within our company,” he said. “As an employee, I always feel that the door is never closed. I’m never stuck in a job for the rest of my life. Internal growth and development is hugely important right to the top of the company. We have such a strong belief in investing in our people because that is what allows us to grow the company.”
Greiner is growing fast, according to Kirkland.
“We are expanding all the time, setting up new locations, buying new locations,” he said. “To make that company growth, we need good people and that’s what the benefit (of Greiner Gold) is for the company. It’s a win-win relationship if it’s treated right on both sides.”
Greiner Packaging USA employs more than 70 people at its 220,000 square-foot facility in Pittston. The plastic packaging manufacturer serves the food market with 70 percent of its business targeted to yogurt and the dairy industry.