WASHINGTON — Management and other white-collar workers in the plastics industry looking to command the best salary should look to the Midwest. At least that's the implication of a recent survey from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which found that the central part of the United States — from Ohio to Kansas and north to Canada — had the highest average salary for 21 of the 39 professional-level categories surveyed in 1996. The West was next with 10, followed by the South with five and the Northeast with three.
That conclusion did not surprise several plastics industry headhunters, who said the presence of corporate headquarters for plastics companies in the Midwest and the sheer number of firms probably raises the average.
But before you pack up for the Snowbelt looking for a better-paying job, the low inflation in the economy is keeping wages in check by holding the line on price increases.
``Talented, experienced, motivated professionals are finding a fertile job market,'' more so than a few years ago, said Dennis Gros, president of Gros Executive Search Inc. in Brentwood, Tenn., which recruits for processors and machinery companies.
``That doesn't mean to go and look for a 30 percent wage increase. It's not happening,'' he said.
The SPI survey reported data from 153 SPI companies with 222 plants in 1996, and compared salaries with a similar 1994 survey. Different companies participated in each year, so data is not directly comparable, the report said. The survey did not report salaries above general manager.
Executive-level positions enjoyed some of the highest growth, with the average general manager salary increasing from $94,800 to $101,400.
Sales vice presidents saw their pay rise on average from $78,300 to $80,900, while finance vice presidents' pay rose from $72,200 to $81,200. Plant managers' pay increased from $63,500 to $64,400, the survey said.
Gros said upper and middle management are seeing ``more meaty'' salary offers than other professionals. But other executive recruiters said the strongest job markets for employees are in the engineering and technical positions.
``Right now, there is a critical need for engineering,'' said John Dugan, president of J.H. Dugan & Associates Inc. in Carmel, Calif.
``Without question, I can tell you it is a hot market.''
Engineering schools did not produce enough graduates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making ``engineering and technical talent so rare that companies are willing to pay the price,'' said Sunny Mehta, president of H.R. Inc. in Mequon, Wis. ``I think it's going to be an employees' market for quite some time.''
Most engineering salaries increased, led by chief engineers, whose average pay went from $62,300 to $69,000. Engineering department managers' pay rose from $64,100 to $67,500, while senior engineers increased $49,600 to $50,200, and tooling engineers from $45,700 to $48,500.
More and more companies want college graduates as engineers, because technology is making the business more complicated, Mehta said.
In fact, the engineering salaries in the SPI survey are conservative and many skilled workers are commanding more money, Dugan said.
Demand for technically skilled employees is strong in injection molding, blow molding and extrusion because those companies find they no longer can pile more work on technical employees as they could when they were downsizing, said Ken Eaton, president of Eaton and Associates, a plastics industry executive search firm in Lake Forest, Calif. They must hire more employees, he said.
Salaries dropped in 11 of the 39 categories surveyed, but the management recruiters interviewed questioned that data and said it clashed with what they were seeing.
Pay dropped for general supervisors, distribution managers, quality assurance supervisors, assistant sales managers, salespeople with five to 10 years' and one to three years' experience, controllers, process engineers, estimators, human resources managers and office managers.
The sharpest drops were seen by assistant sales managers, whose pay went from $65,600 in 1994 to $61,600 in 1996, and general supervisors, who fell from $40,800 to $37,300.
``I'd call that an anomoly,'' Gros said. ``I haven't seen any downward pressure.''
Pay for assistant plant managers rose from $47,200 to $51,200, while production managers' salaries went from $45,700 to $46,500. Other categories with increasing salaries include purchasing managers, who went from $40,400 to $44,500; mold designers, from $37,300 to $42,400; and data processing managers, from $52,000 to $55,200.