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Academia, industry need to tighten ties

By: Bill Bregar

March 29, 2013

TAMPA, FLA. — Representatives of two leading plastics engineering colleges — the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Ferris State University — told Plastics News Executive Forum attendees that academia and plastics companies should work together to attract more students to the industry.

They also heard an official of Bekum America Corp., a blow molding machinery maker, outline Bekum's German-esque apprenticeship program.

Robert Malloy, professor and chairman of the Plastics Engineering department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said links to industry are very important. "Our goal is to produce graduates that hopefully service the needs of the industry," he said. But it's a two-way street. "We need your help in many different ways to allow us to do that effectively."

UMass Lowell is in Lowell, Mass., a blue-collar town once home to the textile industry. Ferris State is in Big Rapids, Mich., north of Grand Rapids. Another major college, Penn State Erie, is in Erie, Pa., a town that gets blasted by snow off Lake Erie.

"People are not flocking to come to these locations," Malloy said. Yet this is where the plastics engineers come from.

"We have far more jobs than we have graduates," Malloy said. "Every one of our graduates will have multiple job offers before they graduate." The UMass Lowell plastics program recruits students from the school's chemistry department, where job prospects are not as good as in plastics, he said.

Robert Speirs, a Ferris State professor and department chair of manufacturing engineering technology, echoed Malloy's comments. "We need to get more bodies in the system. I have room that I could probably triple my enrollment," he said.

Ferris State offers in-state tuition to students from 20 states.

Speirs and Malloy urged plastics processing firms to provide industry speakers to their schools, give plant tours and serve on college advisory boards.

Martin Saur, a German, is manufacturing director at Bekum America in Williamston, Mich. He is one of the founding members of the company's four-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship program. Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH is based in Berlin, and the program is based on the German model, established around 1900.

Under the system, local colleges teach theoretical knowledge and apprentices also work at host factories.

At Bekum America, the company pays for the courses and books, but if the student fails to get at least a grade of B in a class, he or she will have to reimburse Bekum, then take the class over again at their own expense, Saur said.

Bekum America's apprenticeship program is approved and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. There are four available positions: machine builder, welder/fabricator, industrial/electrician and machinist.

Bekum needs highly skilled workers to make its machinery, Saur said. "If you grow your own, you control the outcome," he said.

Saur echoed several other training speakers at the Executive Forum by saying you need to target parents of younger students to explain there are good jobs in manufacturing.

The education panel discussion was held March 4 at the forum in Tampa. Later that day, another panel on plastics worker training drew comments from Andy Routsis, president of A. Routsis Associates Inc. in Dracut, Mass.; Craig Paulson, president of Paulson Training Programs Inc. in Chester, Conn.; and Gary Chastain, training manager for RJG Inc. in Traverse City, Mich.

Routsis and Paulson, whose companies make training materials, emphasized measuring the results of an investment in training. That will show the payback and help firms improve the products, Routsis said.

Chastain said people are a differentiator. "Your competition can buy the same equipment, the same building. Your employees are what set you apart," he said.

Chastain said U.S. manufacturing needs to do more training, in a globally competitive market. Education, he said, "is our biggest strength, and we're giving it away."