LANSING, MICH. — It barely mattered that the governor and many legislators were no-shows. Michigan Plastics Summit '97 was more concerned with the classroom than the state capitol.
The April 10 conference held in Lansing was the state's first summit addressing issues affecting the plastics industry. The summit was attended by more than 400 state industry leaders and educators.
At the top of the agenda was the problem of finding and training skilled workers, a thorn in the side of many participants.
``As an industry, we need workers, lots of them,'' said Michael Clancy, vice president of Libralter Plastics Inc. in Walled Lake, Mich., during a school-to-work breakout session. ``But we're not doing enough campaigning for jobs. We have a plastics industry that's been completely invisible for too long.''
Building industry awareness — and, consequently, enticing more students to enter the profession — was the summit's unifying point. On the one hand, according to figures from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., Michigan ranked third among states in plastics industry employment with 86,700 jobs and $422 million in capital expenditures during 1994.
However, the growing industry gets an undeservedly bad reputation among the general public, said Larry Eisenga, chairman of awareness group Michigan Plastics Industry Roundtable and human resources director of Blue Water Plastics Inc. in Marysville, Mich.
``A lot of it comes from the trash issue,'' he said. ``People think we're destroying the environment by making plastic that's piled on top of landfills. We need to change that attitude and image by educating people that we're a clean industry, one that is worthwhile for young people to enter.''
Organizers hoped that image adjustment would be galvanized by the appearance of Michigan Gov. John Engler at the summit. The group had worked for months with Engler's office to arrange a date that fit his schedule.
Yet those plans came for naught when Engler bowed out several weeks ago to attend an unspecified governors' meeting, Eisenga said. A state congressional recess also meant that few legislators came to a planned afternoon reception.
``We were very disappointed [in Engler],'' said Art Goodsel, president of Huron Plastics Group Inc. in Port Huron, Mich., and a member of the summit advisory committee. ``He's one of the only governors not to appear at a state plastics summit. As large an industry as we are, we thought he should be here.''
The Michigan summit was sponsored by the Industry Roundtable, the Michigan Jobs Commission in Lansing, the American Plastics Council and SPI in Washington, and the Society of Plastics Engineers in Brookfield, Conn.
Against a backdrop that looked like a plastics playground complete with a working slide, a variety of speakers extolled the industry's growth. Included among the speakers were both SPI President Larry Thomas and APC President Red Cavaney. Cavaney honed his talk on APC's ``Plastics Make It Possible'' advertising campaign, while Thomas urged educators and industry to work with the state to develop the next generation of workers.
``Community involvement is quite simply a good business decision for your company and is directly tied to your workplace,'' Thomas said. ``I'd like to challenge each company to become an activist in the industry. Create a better business environment for your company.''
Yet, economics create other realities. William Sederburg, president of Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., told the assembled group how the cost of plastics programs crimp a school's budget. The school, which has 280 plastics engineering students, recently opened a $4.65 million National Elastomer Center for educational purposes.
``It's a balancing act,'' Sederburg said. ``We want to increase the number of students in our [plastics] program. But it's a significant challenge to fund technologies needed for an intensive curriculum.''
At the local level, companies also are grappling with funding educational programs. Plastics companies in six Michigan counties have formed new school-to-work programs that train students as young as the seventh-grade level in plastics processing.
One such program takes place at the Academy for Plastics Manufacturing Technology in St. Clair County, Mich. The school is partly funded by area processors Blue Water Plastics, Huron Plastics, Mohawk Plastics Inc. of Marine City, Mich., and Pine River Plastics Inc. of St. Clair, Mich. Forty students are expected in the program this fall.
State funding for that program, like a similar one involving Libralter in Oakland County, could run out next year unless the state Legislature votes to continue it. Currently, industries in each county apply for grant money through the jobs commission.
Another breakout session addressed other topics of statewide concern and promise for the plastics industry. They included:
Electric utility deregulation. The jobs commission has proposed opening 10 percent of the state's electrical load to private firms. The plan, which might go into effect as early as this summer, would save an average-sized business $20,000 a year on its electric bill, said Robert Filka, president of the Michigan Renaissance Fund, an economic development arm of the commission.
Apprenticeship tax breaks. Michigan offers a single business tax credit of as much as $2,000 annually per apprentice for employees who train high-school age students. Occupational categories include plastics products technicians, mold makers, machinists and machine builders.
The only catch: Qualified apprentices cannot have completed high school or be more than 20 years old.
Job training grants. The state's Economic Development Job Training Program provides funds for companies to send employees back to school for further training. The program, administered through the jobs commission, used $34.2 million in state funds in 1996. The bad news is that funds dry up quickly each year, said Barbara Chubb, the program's acting director.
If the Legislature earmarks funds for the program this year, the commission will have to consider new methods to distribute them, she said. Some summit participants said industry and educators will have to join forces if they expect to keep employment at high levels. Relying on the state could be a mistake.
``It doesn't make a difference that Engler wasn't here,'' said Ronald Leo, research and development manager with Crocker Ltd., a blow molder in Three Rivers, Mich. ``We could hire people today if they were available. But I'm not a person who thinks the state can or should do our job for us.''