Published: August 4, 2008 6:00 am ET

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What does the Society of Plastics Engineers need to do to survive — and thrive?

SPE executives Bill O'Connell and Barbara Arnold-Feret have written an open letter to the group's members, explaining the serious state of affairs. They have proposed several cost-cutting steps, including cutting jobs and selling the association's Brookfield, Conn., headquarters and moving into a smaller building.

The bottom line is that SPE is in a slump. Membership has been sliding, and the organization needs to take action to boost participation.

``If we do nothing, SPE will fade out of existence as the last Baby Boomers retire,'' the letter said.

That's the kind of statement that should get members' attention.

SPE has been a major force in the U.S. plastics industry since its founding in 1942, and internationally for almost as long.

SPE isn't broken — but it's fighting some trends that are tough to beat.

First, there's industry consolidation. Companies have downsized, merged or folded, leaving fewer potential SPE members.

Next, there's the general trend that most young people aren't active in any civic groups or trade associations. Groups like SPE are fighting what author Robert Putnam calls the ``bowling alone'' phenomena. Young adults are increasingly disconnected and not participating in organized structures like their parents did. (Putnam called the problem ``bowling alone'' because statistics show that although bowling in organized leagues has plummeted, more Americans say they are bowling today than ever before.)

SPE knows it needs to do something to appeal to potential members in Generations X and Y. The traditional professional association model, where members get together for section meetings to gossip, socialize and trade information in person, is not appealing to most 24 to 40 year olds.

They still want — they need — the same networking and technical information that SPE provides. They just want to don't want to do it in person — and they probably expect to get it for free. That's the nature of today's young professional, who was most likely raised on the Internet and video games, not PTA meetings and Cub Scouts.

As SPE Executive Director Susan Oderwald pointed out, the entire industry, not just SPE, faces these challenges. In SPE's case, though, the numbers are alarming. Membership peaked at around 38,000 in the early 1990s, and now it is around 18,200 — and it may drop 9-10 percent by the end of the year.

SPE is taking steps to remedy this problem, including holding two online webinars, open to all SPE members, in September and October.

There are examples of trade groups and professional organizations, both within and outside the plastics industry — and even within SPE itself — that have remained strong despite demographic challenges. We trust that SPE will borrow the best ideas available, and that its creative members will come up with some new ideas on their own that can help the group stay effective and successful well into this century.



Published: August 4, 2008 6:00 am ET

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