Forum to offer workforce help

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Nearly everyone reading this, like it or not, is in the human resources business in one way or another. You manage people. You motivate, you train — and perhaps you also recruit and hire. And lately, chances are you’ve found it challenging to find good, skilled candidates, especially in the areas of engineering, tooling and technical services. We hear the same story around the plastics industry, regardless of processes or materials run or end markets served.

Even with unemployment across much of the United States running just under 8 percent, there’s a manufacturing skills gap that is making it difficult for many plastics firms to find the skilled workers they need to grow. Many technically qualified engineers were laid off or left the industry during the recent recession, and now, with business on the increase for many, the talent pipeline has dried to a trickle.

As a microcosm of the problem, consider this from an Oct. 1 story by our sister publication Automotive News. The story notes that at automotive engineering job fairs, just hundreds of applicants come to meet dozens of companies with, collectively, thousands of openings.

 After a decade of layoffs, outsourcing, salary cuts, bankruptcies and restructurings, Detroit’s automotive engineers have scattered.

“A lot of people have disappeared,” [said Carlo Bailo, Nissan North America’s senior vice president in charge of its 1,100-person technical center in suburban Detroit]. “They’ve left their jobs. They’ve left the auto industry. They’ve left the state of Michigan. They’ve retired. And young people have decided they don’t want to go to school to become engineers.”

 (Read the full story at

The big question is how to get them back — not just in the automotive industry, but across the plastics industry and the entire manufacturing sector. It’s a complex challenge that will involve significant, coordinated efforts across the spectrum of interested institutions, from elementary schools, technical colleges and universities to training centers, government officials and corporate leaders.

We need to engage today’s (and tomorrow’s) youth, educate and energize them about the value and potential of careers in manufacturing. Many, familiar only with the type of work their parents may have done, believe manufacturing jobs involve heavy labor in dirty factories, rather than challenging, cross-disciplinary work — often with very cool software — in pristine facilities.

But our industry needs to learn how to reach these future workers, in a manner that resonates with them. Most plastics companies, frankly, are abysmal at this.

Would a Generation Y’er coming to your company’s website find anything there to interest and engage them? Are you effectively leveraging social media to recruit employees and market your firm? Do you have a sense of what motivates today’s 20-something workers, or how to tap into their talents once you hire them?

There also are programs available at various local and regional levels that can help connect students with industry, by offering internships, or securing grants and funding.

Are you aware and taking full advantage of those programs in your area? Are you effectively tapping into all available labor pools, to include service veterans and women? How are you cross-fertilizing with technical colleges and vocational education schools and telling your story to them? Do you have flexible workforce policies that appeal to employees who have vastly different needs and priorities from when you likely took on your first job? (The Nissan executive noted earlier is reluctantly talking, for example, about allowing workers to bring their dogs to the office. Think it’s trivial? Think again. You are competing with Google and Apple for tomorrow’s technical talent.)

But don’t despair. Plastics News aims to help. In a significant change of pace, we are devoting our entire 2013 Executive Forum — set for March 3-6 at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Fla. — to this vital topic of workforce development, education, training, recruitment and retention.

Welcome to “The Industry Skills Summit” ( 2013). Our program will feature some 30 expert presenters, from processor executives, association leaders and university professors to government officials, workforce consultants, training gurus and the head of employment services for the Veterans Administration.

We are especially well-positioned to tackle this task, as our parent company, Crain Communications Inc., also publishes the industry-leading Workforce magazine (, and owns Staffing Industry Analysts (staffing, which closely tracks the global contingent labor sector. We will tap into their resources as well as deeply into our own, as we assemble a 2½-day, executive-level program that will explain, educate, lead and offer direction for addressing today’s industry skills gap.

The good news is that there are real signs of some manufacturing returning to North America from far-flung, low-cost places such as China. But can you scale up your operations with skilled staff to take advantage of such growth opportunities? If you are in acquisition mode, and aim to buy up assets or perhaps a competitor, what do you need to know about integrating what might be vastly different corporate (if not geographic) cultures? Many M&A deals fail because the people and cultures simply don’t mesh well.

We aim to cover all of these topics at our Executive Forum in the spring — and to offer practical advice for making real advances that will help fill the talent pipeline. We’ll also offer tips on what you can do to make your firm a great company to work for — because, once you train someone, you certainly want to keep them in the fold.

Additionally, early next year we plan to publish a separate, in-depth market report on labor and workforce issues, full of data, trends, relevant industry resources, and more. Tell us what you want to know. Together, we can make a real difference in tackling one of the plastics industry’s biggest challenges in years.

 Grace is Plastics News associate publisher, and editorial and conference director. Contact him with your thoughts and suggestions on these topics at .