Worker certification got a black eye at the Society of Plastics Engineers' recent Annual Technical Conference in New York.
SPE canned its program, which had certified only 173 people as plastics technologists since it started in 1996.
The society wrote off $500,000 it loaned to the effort. Leaders decided to cut SPE's losses and get out.
The news is disappointing, but the plastics industry should not view SPE's failure as an indictment of certification. Plastics processors need to continue to support the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s year-old national certification program.
SPE has yet to issue, publicly, a detailed post-mortem analysis of what went wrong. SPE members attending the May 2-6 Antec meeting told Plastics News that the program did not gain enough industry support and was not well-focused.
The move disappointed the dozens of SPE volunteers, from industry and academia, who spent long hours creating the tests. Those 173 people who passed the examination must be wondering what, if any, value their technologist certificates have today.
What is a ``technologist,'' anyway? The term is confusing and ambiguous, at best.
According to SPE, it targeted midlevel professionals, people typically with some college experience who assisted a company's engineering staff.
OK, fine. But how do you reach those people? Do these technically skilled workers, who already are in great demand by the plastics industry, even want or need to be certified? We suspect SPE officials failed to address those questions adequately.
That brings us to SPI.
The two trade groups' certification programs are very different. SPI serves a completely different audience — base-level machine operators at injection molding, blow molding, extrusion and thermoforming plants.
``We're one of the first programs in the country to certify industrial workers at an operator level,'' said Drew Fleming, SPI's director of work force development. ``This is the first industrywide consensus of what a machine operator ought to know.''
SPI's program has benefited from good industry support. Clearly, processors know that training and keeping workers is a top challenge facing the plastics industry, and as a result they've supported the program.
SPI's board of directors kicked in about $400,000 to start the project. But processors have raised another $600,000 over the past four years.
Fleming said 3,000 people from industry have helped, either by filling out surveys to identify job-related tasks or by directly helping to develop the exams.
Fleming said 800 people have taken the SPI tests, which began in June.
SPE just couldn't muster that kind of interest.
Certification remains the best way to achieve measurable skill standards for plastics workers. Industry support has been the strong point of SPI's National Certification in Plastics. Now, as SPI begins to expand the tests by adding a technician level, and looks into certifying schools, SPI's program needs — and deserves — support now more than ever.