Phoenix Challenge Students Facing Challenges During Global Pandemic Find Ways to Complete Projects

Putting their heads down and getting to work prior to the pandemic served each of these schools well. Dr. Keif praised his students: “The team was very self-sufficient and we were ahead of the game when the world fell apart.” Stout was in a similar position pre-pandemic, with Team Leader Matthew Smith remarking, “We were fortunate to be in a great position with our products prior to the team being split up.”

Stout’s sachet pouch, coming off the press at Inland Packaging.
Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Stout

While their head starts left the pressure off at first, problems still arose, especially when it came to the execution of their products. This is where industry partners came to the rescue, taking time out of their increasingly busy schedules to assist. As students were stuck in their bedrooms, itching to get their hands back on press, technology allowed them to still be virtually involved. Parks Printing, which worked with CPCC, printed the school’s products with the supervision of the students. Baez recalled “joining a Zoom call that enabled us to tell [the press operators] exactly how we wanted the press to be, down to which anilox was in each station and station order.” The students were not physically there, but their knowledge and technical abilities were still put to the test. Stout also worked with industry partners like Label and Pouch, going on press at their facility on the last day of school, and then shifting their production to “…Great Northern Corp through calls and emails to finish the final project.” Cal Poly found safe solutions to get on presses themselves: “[For] the final pressrun, [the team] wore protective gear, washed their hands often, and tried to maintain a safe distance from each other, just in case.” Production in the midst of pandemic is no easy feat for an experienced large-scale company, but the students still found a way to get their projects completed.

Going Virtual

Student leaders also faced new pressure to end the challenge strongly and keep their team focused. Smith of Stout focused on leading by example: “I wanted to make it clear that even though I could not physically be there, they could always ask me a question no matter when they worked on the challenge.” Positivity was key to the success for Cal Poly: “Our team stayed positive throughout the whole process and continued to give it their all, even when we weren’t sure we would be able to compete.”

Baez of CPCC learned the precarious balancing act of students with lives outside of the competition. “I quickly discovered that the key to keeping everyone engaged in our project was through delegation and firm deadlines (with grace because some of our team work as essential personnel).”

The 2020 Phoenix Challenge College Competition team from Central Piedmont Community College

In any other year, by late April or early May, the students would be gearing up to travel to FTA’s FORUM with boxes of finished products and presentations humming in their heads. Instead, they sat on endless Zoom calls and Facetimes and exchanged long messages, building the blueprint on how to present months of work at a newly virtual FORUM. For most of the student leaders, presenting virtually was a new experience. But they put in their practice. For example, Cal Poly had “meetings over Zoom twice a week,” mirroring their industry counterparts. Instead of standing in a small ballroom in front of their peers and judges, they were presenting their work to a much larger virtual crowd.

For a group of primarily Generation Z and young Millennial students, a virtual presentation was both comfortable and new. Stout found creativity in the format. “This gave us more freedom with our font sizes and how we laid out our images and graphics.” Much like the rest of the world, the teams were also learning the rules of a Zoom presentations, with Smith stating, “Presenting online meant a lot of practice on the software and improving our presentation etiquette.” And as Baez explained, the literal physical distance took some of the pressure off. “It also helped make several of our presenters less nervous than if we had to give [the presentation] in person.” Cal Poly was aware of the challenges of presenting digitally. “The judges wouldn’t really get a chance to take note of our individual personalities or body language via web cam.” Each school took on its new format with gumption and drive to make the best presentation possible.

On presentation day, the students put on their best business clothes, selected their favorite Zoom backgrounds, and prepared to discuss in detail their months of hard work to a large virtual crowd of excited industry leaders. CPCC spoke with enthusiasm, clarity and depth of research about their bright and whimsical bath bomb labels and butterfly-shaped tags for their client. Despite not having physical access to a press, the team managed to still develop and successfully execute a rebrand for a local business. The second-place team, Stout, entered the Zoom presentation with confidence and professional-level skills. Their rebranding of a local farm was clean and showcased strong overall prowess. Their delightful yet informative pressure-sensitive labels, flexible pouch, and corrugated box impressed judges and viewers with their creativity and quality of product.

From left: CPCC’s John Dymond, Matt Gabriel and Sabrina Baez conduct press limitation tests.
Photo courtesy of Central Piedmont Community College

Finally, Cal Poly’s strong graphics, detailed research and execution of a cohesive gift box, label and treat container for a local pet food boutique floored the judges, leading to a first-place prize. While one team has to win, a common consensus across the viewers, judges and faculty was each team proved its capabilities and grace under pressure like never before. Dr. Keif remarked, “It comes back to great student leadership.” Cal Poly, Stout and CPCC were led by talented young leaders who uplifted and challenged their teams to do their best despite a world falling around them.

A Changing Landscape

The 2020 Phoenix Challenge College Competition and its fantastic student leaders and team members faced shutdowns, closures and economic uncertainty with strength and perseverance. As young people in the industry, their perspective of what it’s like to work in flexographic print during a rapidly changing landscape is a vital one for industry leaders to hear.

Royston thinks community will play a part. “Maintaining our sense of community and supporting each other, even if it’s not in person, is what’s going to get us through this and any other challenges we have ahead of us.” Baez looks to the emerging technology as a cause for hope, saying “I believe that thanks to our advanced technology, we are ready (in that aspect) to step into the new future of the flexographic and packaging industry.” Finally, Smith said this moment will be cause for innovation: “This situation is actually going to create a new level of creativity.”

As these young people and their peers enter the workforce, they bring with them everything they themselves described: focus of community and communication, understanding of new technologies, and creativity. This year’s Phoenix Challenge is cause for hope in the flexographic industry and its emerging leaders. As Krafft said of these students, “Any recruiter that gets a hold of any of these kids, would have a real gem.”

About the Author

Emma Woolbright headshot
Emma Woolbright earned her master’s degree in graphic communications from Clemson in 2019, with a focus on branding. In the print world, Emma has spoken on the Youth Leadership panel at DSCOOP as well as been a leader of Clemson’s Phoenix Challenge team, and was part of a panel discussion at Fall Conference 2018.