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The plastics industry in Massachusetts is raising its voice.

In May, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Economic Development announced that a newly formed public-private task force will develop a strategy to support the growth of plastics manufacturing in the state.

David McKeehan, president of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the task force will establish the plastics industry in Massachusetts ``as one of the state's premiere economic forces.''

Todd Shimkus, the chamber's director of government affairs, said more than 37,000 people are employed at 589 plastic manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts, with estimated annual wages totaling more than $1.2 billion.

A high concentration of those facilities is in the north central part of the state. The first meeting is slated for mid- to late June, said Shimkus, who will sit on the task force composed of state, regional and local officials representing both the public and private sectors.

Anthony Cetrone, president of Micron Medical Products in Fitchburg, Mass., will chair the group. He said the task force will meet on a regular basis throughout the summer, and will announce its action agenda at the 1997 MassPlastics trade show to be held in Fitchburg in late October.

The plastics industry in Massachusetts is ``the fastest-growing sector of our labor market,'' said Jim Taylor, executive director of the North Central Massachusetts Regional Employment Board. He also will sit on the task force.

Taylor said the industry is in a growth mode that requires a skilled labor force.

But skilled workers on the factory floor are at a premium, he noted. Employers need skills development within the existing work force. But ``the different funding sources from the federal government usually require that participants be unemployed,'' he said.

The state has about $200 million from the federal government available for job training — but ``it comes down very restricted,'' according to John Regan, director of the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, a subagency of the Department of Economic Development.

``The delivery system is impacted tremendously,'' he said.

Regan said that the money should come down as block grants, making it available for job training where the job training is needed.

Representatives for Lt. Gov. A. Paul Cellucci and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said they support the block-grant concept, although Kennedy's support was conditional.

With unemployment in Massachusetts at about 4 percent, manufacturing in the state is pushing for funding available to upgrade skills on the job.

Taylor suggested following the lead of 16 other states that have elected to establish work force development trust funds by decreasing the percentage of taxation for unemployment insurance and assigning the differential to the new fund.

Other issues to be identified by the task force will focus on improving the competitiveness of the plastics industry in the Bay State.

``In terms of business and economic development, maybe policies we can adjust or adopt will help the industry be more successful,'' Regan said. ``Cost is always a factor. Deregulation of utility costs should help. There will be issues that will arise that can be resolved through education and marketing. I honestly think one of the biggest issues will be confusion. ... `How the hell do I play in this new world?'''

In which case, said Regan, ``The right policy solution will be making people understand what's available and how to get it.''