WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has developed what it says are the first national standards for what machine operators should know, a key step toward developing certification exams for blow molding, extrusion, injection molding and thermoforming.
Washington-based SPI's standards, a 17-page report called the ``Body of Knowledge,'' will probably not be a great surprise to companies that have extensive training programs, said Drew Fleming, SPI's director of industry work force development. But they will prove helpful to firms and educators who are clamoring for programs and are unsure about what skills to emphasize, he said.
The four separate exams, which are based on the standards, will be completed by mid-1998 and will provide each process with a 150-question test of applied knowledge, he said. The standards are based on a survey of 2,000 industry workers — 70 percent with at least four years of experience — and plant visits.
The effort also now must turn back to fund raising because it is still about $400,000 short of the $1.2 million needed to finish the project, Fleming said. He said he is hopeful that SPI can raise the money.
Joan Hansen, manager of organizational development for Cherry Electrical Products in Waukegan, Ill., and a former trainer for medical manufacturer Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, Ill., said training in plastics usually lags behind that in the medical industry.
Medical companies have higher profit margins and can afford more training, and many plastics companies do not value training as much as they should, she said.
Establishing training standards and certification programs also will help firms retain employees and develop a stronger sense among machine operators that their jobs are a career path, said Jay Cude, group vice president for DeRoyal Plastics Group in Powell, Tenn. Cude was involved in developing the standards with SPI.
``We want to add a level of professionalism to the job,'' he said. ``The machine operator position has evolved. It is at a higher level than it was 10 years ago.''
The certification program will not retain employees by itself, if pay and other working conditions are not competitive, Cude said. But it can make a difference in employee attitudes, if other parts of the job are favorable, he said.
``Turnover is very, very high when people do not see a future,'' Hanson said. ``I don't think they are turning over because pay is an issue. It's monotonous. It's tedious. They have no ownership in the job.''
Hansen, who was not involved in developing the standards but saw them at a recent industry meeting in Nashville, praised the effort. She plans to circulate the booklet among trainers and expert machine operators at her company, and ask how they should structure training programs.
A similar training effort in the firm's soldering program helped turn around an area that was suffering from customer complaints about the quality of finished circuit boards, Hansen said.
``All these people said they knew how to solder, but they were taught by the person on the line next to them,'' she said. ``So we created a solder class, where we taught them a method.''
The ``Body of Knowledge'' ranks skill and content areas in order of importance and identifies key knowledge for operators of all four types of machines. Safety and quality assurance ranked as the two most important areas, followed by basic process control, general knowledge, preventive and corrective action on primary and secondary equipment, handling and packaging of materials, and tools and equipment.
The document will be on SPI's employee training Web site, http://www.certifyme.org, after Jan. 1, Fleming said.
SPI did not design the standards to offer a detailed curriculum to educators and training firms, but would like to see those groups use their expertise to develop efforts, Fleming said.
The standards were shown recently to a group of educators, and the response was mixed, said Cude, who hosted the meeting. Those who did not know as much about plastics wanted more details.
``We are going to put together some additional detail for those who need it,'' he said. ``From the public educational community, there was a very distinct difference between those who had already worked with plastics companies to develop curriculum and those who haven't.''