By: Bill Bregar
June 25, 2014
How to attract young people into manufacturing?
That is the biggest, long-term issue facing the U.S. plastics industry, mold making and every single factory in the country. It’s safe to say that recruiting young people, teaching them the skills ... heck, just getting them interested in manufacturing, is way more important than new technology and resin prices.
You can equip your new factory with precision injection molding machines and six-axis robots. But then you have to hire people!
I found two companies that have figured it out, found good young workers interested in learning more about plastics and metalworking. But in both cases — custom molder Dymotek Corp. and screw-maker Glycon Corp. — the youngsters kind of backed into their careers, by chance. This is not uncommon in plastics, which despite being a major industry, remains oddly obscure. What’s important is that, once they found each other, companies and the young people cemented the relationship — with internship and apprenticeships while they were still in high school.
I attend a lot of conferences, and can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they learned the local high school guidance counselor guides everyone to college prep. What about a job in a factory? The kids don’t hear that. That hasn’t changed since I was young: My blue-collar mother and father just assumed my brother and I would go to college. And sure enough, in my senior year of high school, 1979, the U.S. auto industry began to sink under the competitive weight from Japanese imports. Manufacturing meant layoffs and uprooting your family to move to a new car plant. Dirty. Exhausting.
That attitude hasn’t changed. In fact, I’m sure it’s gotten worse; as we baby boomers work in offices, we’re one more step removed from the factory floor, so our kids don’t get any of that message.
So now it’s a crisis. How is the United States going to cope with work being “reshored” from China?
Germany and Austria solved the problem a century ago, and now they have well-entrenched apprenticeship programs that institutionalized vocational training. Instead of sitting in class all day — then maybe going to work in fast food or cutting lawns, they can do book learning in school and then hands-on training work.
The more I travel and learn about this, it has become obvious that the U.S. will never create such a system. But we can start by reaching into the high schools, and even middle schools, to expose youngsters to modern manufacturing. Every company can do this. You should start by meeting with the local guidance counselors and — most importantly — opening up your factory for school tours.
The field trip has all but vanished from most American schools, a victim of out-of-control proficiency testing, budget cutbacks and, on the business side, liability concerns, secrecy, even downright paranoia. That’s too bad. Field trips played a key role in these two success stories:
Christopher LaBranche at Dymotek in Ellington, Conn.
LaBranche, 19, is a tooling technician who repairs and maintains molds, helping keep the automated injection molder running smoothly. Like most high schoolers, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. That changed when LaBranche took a drafting and design class, and they went on a field trip to local aerospace, machining and molding factories.
After graduating, he went to Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Conn., and began an internship with Dymotek working two eight-hour days on Thursdays and Fridays, and attending the school’s manufacturing technology courses the rest of the week.
And get this — all you people who expect your son or daughter to get a four-year college degree — it was a one year program!
Victor Morando, Dymotek’s vice president of engineering services, talked about this young man in a “next generation” roundtable at the Plastics News Executive Forum earlier this year. Morando said Dymotek promotes Manufacturing Day events and helps local schools with Junior Achievement.
Then I was amazed to meet young LaBranche in person, along with Morando over in Lossburg, Germany, at the Arburg Technology Days this year. Yes, Dymotek took its recent hire on his first-time to Europe, a seven-day trip to Arburg’s annual tech extravaganza in the Black Forest, then on to Oftering, Austria, to see Elmet Elastomere Produktions-und Dienstleistungs GmbH, which is building a two-shot LSR mold package for a new program at Dyomtek.
That’s one helluva of a field trip!
“Chris was so thankful and excited about the trip, but so was Dymotek,” Morando said. “It’s great to have someone so fired up about being a bigger part of the company’s, and his own, success.”
Dymotek has sent half of its technical people for training in 2013 and early 2014. The company sent seven people to the K show last year in Germany.
That costs money, and time. But listen to LaBranche’s blog item for the company website: “As a 19-year-old who started as an apprentice just one year ago, my mind was blown” when the company asked him if he wanted to go to Europe. “I could not believe the opportunity presented to me. Of course, I said yes.”
What does this guy think of manufacturing? “Dymotek is truly an amazing place to work and proves day in and day out that they are willing to invest in their employees and place trust in them to help further the company … I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.”
He loves coming to work … in a factory!
Josh Duff at Glycon in Tecumseh, Mich.
At age 32, Duff is a veteran at Glycon. That’s because he started when he was just 17.
“School never really was my high point, I guess. But I liked working on stuff with my hands. And that kinda stuff excited me, more than sitting in a classroom. So I chose machine trades,” he said.
His junior and senior years, Duff went to the local vocational school — the Lenawee Intermediate School District Technical Center. Every single student in eighth-grade visits the trade school — a common-sense idea other districts should try.
“It’s a great thing for guys like Josh who are saying, ‘school is pretty boring for me, but this is kind-of interesting,” said John Phelan, Glycon’s general manager and corporate counsel.
Duff also took some other field trips to area machining companies.
“We visited probably three or four around the area, including here at Glycon. And I was intrigued with this place because of the size of the equipment. I just thought that was neat compared to some of the other ones. And I just put an application in.”
He worked at Glycon the summer between his junior and senior year, and the entire senior year. He worked eight to 10 hours a day, and went to school.
Glycon hired him right out of high school.
At Glycon, Duff is a machinist and programmer and he runs a lathe mill that cuts internal and external threads on screws. He loves figuring out ways to be more efficient. “There’s always something new,” he said.
Phelan said Josh is a “sharp guy” who was fortunate he found out what he was interested at a young age.
That’s where the field trips come in. What ever happened to them?
“If I wouldn’t have had that field trip, I probably wouldn’t ever even have known about this place,” Duff said.
You’ve got to get them while they’re young.
Bregar is a Plastics News senior reporter.