With more than 130 proprietary, captive and custom molding operations, the state of Mississippi appears to have a healthy - and growing - plastics processing industry. But some in the industry believe the state lacks one essential ingredient to a strong molding community: mold makers.
Mississippi molders send outside of the state about $50 million in new mold-building projects, and between $10 million and $15 million in repair work annually, said Jim Hemphill, a retired plastics pioneer who works with the Mississippi Polymer Institute to develop education programs.
Hemphill based the estimates on a survey of molders. He received replies from 47 molding companies.
``There's a serious shortage of mold shops here,'' Hemphill said.
Officials at the state's economic and community development commission are looking at ways to attract mold shops to Mississippi.
Although mold makers are in short supply elsewhere, the problem seems more acute in the Southeast, where a manufacturing boom is luring more plastics processors.
Steve Ham, technical marketing manager for Cashiers Plastic in Cashiers, N.C., a division of Consolidated Metco, said he is experiencing long lead times for new molds and mold repairs.
``By nature, the mold-making business is up and down, but we're not seeing any down,'' Ham said. ``[Mold making and repair] schedules continue to be tight.''
Joe Wadlinger, vice president of Delta Mold, a 100-person mold shop in Charlotte, N.C., said his company is quoting 18 to 22 weeks on new mold builds. That's common in shops throughout the Southeast.
He added that some smaller shops are popping up in the area, but demand for mold makers is outstripping supply, especially in areas such as Tennessee.
``If there's a good mold maker out there, we want him,'' said Wadlinger, who added that Delta will take people with some machining experience and train them. Currently, Delta Mold offers its mold makers 56-hour workweeks.
``That's true with every good mold shop in this area,'' he said. ``There's definitely room for mold shops, but where are you going to find the people?''
Alliance Carolina Tool & Mold Corp. employs 125, 90 of those in mold making at its Arden, N.C., plant. Vice President Klaus Jockwig said the company used to have an apprenticeship program several years ago. However, Alliance stopped the program after many of its people were ``pirated away by neighboring industries'' to support their in-house shops.
``We're going to have to start that program again,'' said Jockwig. ``There are just no qualified mold makers looking for jobs here. If they're good, they're working.''
Don Perry, vice president and general manager for Syracuse Plastics of North Carolina Inc. in Cary, N.C., said that it is difficult to find good mold makers in the area.
``You're looking at a talent that is a very big contributor to the bottom line, yet we can't find the people,'' he said.
Perry has been running advertisements in most of the plastics publications trying to import mold makers and tooling engineers from other parts of the country. To date, Perry has received 184 resumes, which leads to another problem Perry faces.
``A lot of guys just want to get a free ride to the sunny South, then retire,'' said Perry. To eliminate that situation, Perry makes new hires sign an employment agreement that states if they stay less than a year, they must reimburse the company for moving expenses.
Still, importing mold makers from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and other Rust Belt states is the only way shops can get the quality and amount of talent they need.
``There's certainly a need here for more tool shops,'' said Perry. Molders say that because of a shortage of local shops, many companies dominate one firm, inundating it with work to the point that it becomes impossible for the shop to take work from anyone else. In essence, the mold maker becomes captive to one company.
``There are companies that try to swamp you with work,'' said Alliance's Jockwig. ``We try not to let that happen because when you depend on one customer and they pull out, you're stuck trying to find replacement work.''