PITTSFIELD, MASS. — For newly elected Berkshire Plastics Network President Richard Rilla, learning always has been the key to the future. He got his start in 1955 as a high school senior participating in a cooperative learning program at Pittsfield-based Marland Mold Inc. Rilla refined his mold-making skills and went on to own his business — Richwell Mold & Tool. He sold the company a year ago at age 60, but still works as general manager at Ironman Machine in Pittsfield.
"Mold making is very labor-intensive. For those who stick to it, it is a very worthwhile and long-lasting career," said Rilla, who was interviewed March 15 at the BPN office.
He long has been an advocate of education and sees it as an avenue for BPN members to grow and expand their employee base. Rilla points to the small number of qualified employment candidates as the top concern of network members.
That hasn't changed in more than a decade. Rilla, who was one of the founding BPN directors when it began in 1986, said the labor crunch was a motivating factor in the group's formation. Companies would offer competitors' workers a 25 or 50 cent-per-hour raise and then a year later, someone else would do the same to lure the workers away, he said.
Rilla has worked with many students at his company's co-op program and is chairman of the BPN education board. He also is chairman of a group of 19 advisory committees of career technology and vocational programs in the local school systems.
Rilla believes in the importance of telling people about opportunities in the plastics industry — especially young people and their parents. He attends as many job fairs and career days as possible. He gets students to tour member companies.
When he goes to middle schools to talk about plastics, he brings tools of the trade and the end products. He lets students break products apart, then he explains how they were made.
He also lobbies for the support of teachers and guidance personnel.
"We are trying to get teachers and guidance counselors in externships with businesses in Berkshire County," Rilla said. "Our member companies can't find enough employees qualified to grow our companies, and the customer is demanding that we do more work for them."
He said crossword puzzles and models made from balsa wood helped prepare him for the mold-making challenge. Rilla also said that sports like basketball teach that a team effort is needed to complete the project.
Mathematics, science, English and computers are the building blocks needed to prepare students for plastics industry careers, he said. Rilla supports a "2+2+2" program, that starts with two years of preparation in high school, followed by two years of intense technical training in an engineering program at Berkshire Community College, then two years to complete a bachelor's degree.
The Berkshire Plastics Network also is using a $39,000 state grant to offer a CD-ROM interactive training program to small and medium-size employers. The theory, according to Rilla, is that those who take the program will move up the employment ladder, and thus more entry-level openings should exist.
Rilla hopes the initiatives are just the start.
"The key to most businesses — their ability to grow and expand — is the education of their work force supplied by their community," he said.