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Toolmakers need skilled workforce

By: Don Loepp

October 4, 2013

The North American tooling sector is looking both strong and lean these days. That's good news. Mold makers were rocked during the Great Recession, especially those that relied on the automotive industry. And that's a huge market for North American toolmakers — 89 of the 112 companies in our Oct. 7 ranking make automotive tools.

There was some consolidation in 2009, and then a rapid recovery. According to a soon-to-be-released study from consulting group Harbour Results Inc., the tooling sector has been growing rapidly for the past three years, and now capacity is starting to get tight.

Laurie Harbour, the firm's president and CEO, says the next steps for tooling firms will be critical.

"There's no doubt that the pressure is still there on tool suppliers to continue to reduce lead time and price," she told PN's Rhoda Miel.

The plastics industry knows how to deal with pressure to keep costs down — make investments that improve efficiency. Successful toolmakers will invest in automation to help them compete globally.

And let's not forget about the human element — skilled workers. Shops can have all the best equipment in the world, but if they don't have trained employees they're dead in the water.

Mold makers have been talking about a shortage of skilled workers for decades. But the situation is just getting worse.

Tooling company owners shouldn't expect someone to solve that problem for them. The labor shortage is a cultural problem. Parents aren't pushing bright children into the manufacturing trades these days. The consensus is that there's no future there. And who can blame them, with stories of manufacturing plant shutdowns and stiff competition from China so fresh in their minds?

But the truth is that North American manufacturing is globally competitive. And skilled labor is a critically important part of the equation. Toolmakers, more than most manufacturers, need to take an active role in training the next generation of manufacturing workers.

But remember, it all starts with changing public attitudes about manufacturing. That will go a long way toward helping companies recruit — and retain — bright workers.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog."