Hourly wages for shop-level employees generally seem to be going up 4-5 percent a year, according to interviews with industry executives.
Although labor markets are tight, most companies contacted did not report significant problems finding machine operators and lower-paid workers, but said they are having problems locating highly skilled workers.
One Midwestern molder, for example, said it used an executive-search firm for the first time recently to find skilled maintenance mechanics.
``We are very automated, and finding the people to keep that stuff running well is challenging,'' said Hoop Roche, chief executive officer of Erie Plastics Co. in Corry, Pa. ``There is starting to be a fair amount of predatory recruiting going on.''
Some specialized jobs are seeing double-digit wage increases, and finding technicians for automation, processing, quality and maintenance is proving tough, he said. Roche is spearheading a new group, Plastics Pennsylvania, that will concentrate on boosting training to increase the number of skilled workers.
A human resources official with one Illinois injection molder who did not want to be identified said his company has paid wage increases of between 4 and 5 percent a year for several years, but has been able to find people. Less than 2 percent of its jobs are unfilled, he said.
``Frankly, we've done pretty well,'' the official said. ``We haven't had to go to any extremes.''
Injection molder and mold maker Beacon Plastics Inc., in Greenville, S.C., also is paying about 5 percent more a year, a little higher than normal.
President Harry Ussery said the company's plants in urban areas — Greenville and Little Rock, Ark. — are seeing a lot of wage pressure because the unemployment rate is 2 percent or less. ``It just becomes an employees' market,'' he said.
But at its plants in rural areas — in Vilonia, Ark., and Homer, La. — workers are much easier to find, he said. That is making Beacon much more likely to expand those plants, Ussery said.
Beacon offers a profit-sharing plan and is looking at other incentives to keep workers. Ussery said Beacon also hopes a new Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. program to certify plastics machine operators will help firms retain employees. Ussery is chairman of Washington-based SPI.
That program, called National Certification in Plastics, kicks off Sept. 8 when the test will be available at more than 250 Sylvan Learning Centers.
Labor markets in Connecticut are very tight, with mold makers and skilled quality-control people particularly hard to find, said Ted Stoughton, executive director of the Connecticut Plastics Council in Middletown, Conn. Firms are ``desperate'' for mold makers, with one paying its current employees $1,000 bonuses if they can bring another mold maker in, he said.
Firms also are finding they have to sweeten the pot with other incentives to retain employees.
``I see more companies talking more about 401Ks for the production-level employees and incentives on education,'' said Ken Eaton, a plastics industry executive search consultant in Lake Forest, Calif.
The raise figures given by companies contrast with wage hikes in a recent SPI survey. That survey, released in December with data from September, found wages rose only 1.4 percent between 1996 and 1997. That includes only the 126 plants that responded to the survey in both years.
SPI said the study is not statistically valid, and an official with the firm that compiled the data for SPI said it did not measure wage increases for the same employees in the same jobs, but rather total payroll averages.
A lot of new hires at lower wages would hold down the overall average, according to the official with Association Services Group in Bethesda, Md. Eaton said the SPI surveys consistently have unrealistically low pay averages, and several companies that filled out the survey in both years speculated that significant hiring of entry-level employees was lowering the average increase.
SPI has not updated a similar survey of white-collar wages since last year.