WARWICK, R.I. — The mantra Sept 23 at the Rhode Island Plastics Summit in Warwick was not new: We need workers.
What may have been new was the approach.
Rather than talk about starting training programs or comparing notes on how to find employees, the participants focused on expanding an apprenticeship program for skilled technicians that companies said works well but needs more employer participation.
The apprenticeship program started two years ago. It has about 25 students in various stages of a four-year program of college classes and on-the-job training that costs employers about $120,000, including trainee wages, when it is done.
But more companies need to be aware of the program and more need to participate, said Steven Fielding, president of the Rhode Island Plastics Partnership Council Inc. in Cranston. Fielding also is president of Fielding Manufacturing Co., an injection molder and miniature zinc die caster in Cranston.
The summit, organized by RIPPC, the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the American Plastics Council, was the state's first.
All the discussion — even a question-and-answer session with the leaders of state environmental and economic development agencies — was dominated by concerns about worker shortages.
Joseph Sullivan, operations director for foam fabricator M.H. Stallman Co. in Providence, said he was unaware of the apprenticeship program until he read a story about the summit in a local newspaper. But now he said he's interested in getting apprentices.
``At the machine-operators level and technicians is where we are struggling [to fill jobs],'' Sullivan said. ``We are having trouble bidding on new jobs.''
M.H. Stallman has gone through temporary workers and has contacted agencies that work with recent immigrants looking for workers. The 50-employee company has about five positions open, he said.
The training program is trying to increase the number of skilled workers so the state's plastics companies stop raiding each other for employees, Fielding said.
``We were competing for a shrinking labor pool,'' he said. ``We die a slow death when we steal each other's help, pay more and see the work suffer.''
The apprenticeship program was praised by state officials and labor union leaders, who said the plastics industry in Rhode Island is ahead of other industries in the state.
``We in America have tried to do job training on the cheap,'' George Nee, secretary and treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. ``We don't do the proper investment in a person.''
Training programs generally have not adjusted enough to the high-technology skills required, said Dennis Bouchard, programming director for the Human Resource Investment Council in Providence, a state agency that provides seed money for job training.
``Although we've made a great deal of progress ... we're still not there,'' he said.
HRIC gave RIPPC a $100,000 grant to start its program.
The apprenticeship program includes an extensive process to identify students, beginning with getting students and teachers at selected high schools to visit factories. Students who are interested then spend time shadowing a qualified technician, where the company can gauge aptitude and attitude.
Students who pass get six- to eight-week summer internships. If they stay interested and the company likes them, they enter a company-paid, four-year program.
The screening process is designed to increase the odds that most of those who start the program finish, Fielding said.
The apprenticeship program was modeled after an effort that Michael Marra, president of Cowan Plastic Products Corp. in Providence and RIPPC secretary, said he saw while at an SPI event at Blue Water Plastics Inc., in Marysville, Mich. RIPPC officials said Rhode Island is the first place to expand that statewide.
About 10 percent of the state's plastics firms participate. Fielding said he was disappointed that some of the larger companies, including some captive molding shops, do not participate.
The RIPPC is building a lab with a donated injection molding machine and equipment at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick. At the summit, Parametric Technology Corp., in Waltham, Mass., also donated 500 copies of its Pro/Engineer mold-design software to CCRI and the University of Rhode Island.