A fter years of talk, industry leaders finally are taking concrete steps to develop an employee certification program. This newspaper endorses certification to achieve measurable skill standards for plastics workers nationwide. However, we don't like what we see happening today: The two leading trade associations are operating independently of one another, on two separate certification programs. The industry needs a single effort, a single set of tests to prove given skill levels.
When it comes to certification - an issue vital to every manufacturing employee in plastics - the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and Society of Plastics Engineers need to communicate openly with one another. Right now, each trade group seems to be working in a vacuum.
SPI and SPE are developing standards for two different types of people. SPI, at least initially, is targeting shop-floor people such as machine operators, mold set-up personnel and quality assurance employees. Ultimately, SPI would like to have three to six levels of certification, ending with a ``master molder'' designation.
SPE, on the other hand, is targeting the more-technical types, including ``technologists'' (typically those holding a two-year college degree) and engineers.
Because they essentially are reaching two different ``markets,'' SPI and SPE partisans can make a pretty good argument that two certification efforts are merited. Another justification: A single trade association never would be able to tackle the mammoth job of certification for everyone, from operator to engineer.
Sounds reasonable enough. But that does not justify the lack of communication between SPI and SPE on certification. Historically, in the decade or so that certification has been an issue, SPE and SPI have shared some information, but only on a rather informal basis. Currently, there are no talks between the two groups on certification, even though both announced their plans earlier this year.
That's a big mistake. At the very least, officials from the groups should meet regularly, if for nothing else to learn from each other in the expensive, complex world of developing certification standards for the first time.
A good argument can be made that two efforts are not a good idea. It's clear that, for plastics processors, the greatest immediate need is a standard way to measure skills of shop-floor people, not engineers.
An engineer already comes with a pedigree, a college degree. Obviously, differences exist in engineering programs. Still, at least an engineer is a known quantity. That's not the case - by a long shot - for people who operate and control the machines.
Plus, engineers hired by plastics plants probably will want to take the basic molder certification tests anyway - another reason why one certification program is better than two. Right now, certifying engineers just might be more of a luxury than a necessity.
Finally, as SPI's experience already shows, creating a certification plan can be extremely expensive. An SPI task force is trying to raise $800,000. SPI hired a unit of McGraw-Hill Inc. to help develop the plan, including drawing up test wording that is not discriminatory.
As the real work to develop plastics certification begins, this is not the time to set up two duplicative programs for the sake of maintaining trade association turf.
Now - before either group gets too far along - is the time to hash matters out thoroughly.
SPI and SPE would do the plastics industry a favor if they started formal certification talks. We're not talking about creating a bureaucracy, just regular meetings to see how they can cooperate, and learn from each other's mistakes, during this monumental and vital industry task.