Chris Davis made the switch from chemical engineering to polymer technology studies at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, convinced plastics offered him the best career options.
But the Meridian, Miss., native also figured it would take him away from home and family.
``When I started in polymer science, I told my folks that this would mean I'd end up somewhere across the country after I graduated,'' Davis said. ``I told them I'd probably only see them maybe four times a year when I could fly in. I was prepared for that; they were prepared for that.''
Instead, Davis landed a job as a research associate with start-up company Mississippi Polymer Technologies Inc. in Bay St. Louis, Miss. The company is one of a growing number of plastics firms setting up shop in the state, drawn by an available work force, the technical expertise at SMU and a state and local government incentive program that specifically targets plastics.
Between 1999 and 2000, Mississippi added nearly 3,000 jobs in the plastics industry, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s annual economic report, ``Plastics Data Source.'' While the report ranks the state as the 25th-largest plastics employer nationwide, the state's per capita jobs number has soared.
In 1999, plastics provided 14.8 jobs per 1,000 nonagricultural jobs in Mississippi, placing it No. 18 in Washington-based SPI's annual ranking of the industry's jobs concentration.
For 2000, the most recent year statistics were available, the state jumped to No. 8, with 15.3 plastics jobs per 1,000. By comparison, California has the most plastics industry jobs - nearly 150,000 - but its far-larger population places it at 25th in the ranking of jobs per capita.
Mississippi's increasing numbers do not even include the processing plants that will open in response to Nissan North America Inc.'s new assembly plant now under construction in Canton, as well as suppliers heading south to do business with other auto manufacturing sites moving into neighboring Alabama.
``This is not the state that people think it is,'' said Robert J. Rohrlack Jr., executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. ``A lot of people think that a successful state for business development is going to be one of those with the top 10 in terms of population. That's just not true. We're an example of that.''
Industry from tragedy
The plastics industry blew into southern Mississippi in the draft of one of the most devastating storms to hit the region.
In August 1969, Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf coast, coming ashore at Pass Christian, Miss. The storm killed more than 150 people along the coast, and cleared the tung trees that were the backbone of the growing tung oil industry.
At Hattiesburg, USM chemistry professor Shelby Thames had been researching uses for tung oil. He was forced to launch a search for a new focus for the university's research outreach, landing on plastics.
The university opened its polymer science program in 1970, and now has a reputation as one of the top U.S. polymer training programs, with 100 undergraduate students and 67 people pursuing a Ph.D. at the site.
What it did not have, though, was a strong home-grown plastics industry to keep those researchers once they completed their schooling, said Thames, who led the polymer school before becoming USM president in May.
By 1990, there were only a relative handful of plastics businesses in Mississippi. Zeon Chemicals LP, an elastomer producer in Hattiesburg, launched in 1970 as part of Hercules Inc. GE Plastics was running five ABS production lines on the Gulf Coast near Bay St. Louis, just a few miles from where Camille made landfall in 1969.
Thames was not alone in noting the brain drain. In 1993, the state's legislature created the Mississippi Polymer Institute and tasked it with specifically serving as a conduit between the university's research might and potential employers.
``We're here to help bring the plastics industry to Mississippi, and to support the companies that are already in Mississippi,'' said institute President James M. Evans.
In the institute's first seven years, it completed more than 1,200 consultations and 400 technical service projects, produced 3,200 rapid-prototype models and assisted in bringing 41 new facilities to the state, representing more than $500 million in capital spending.
Its work runs the gamut from employee training, to assistance with new product development, to helping cut through government red tape.
Tests that Zeon Chemicals otherwise might have had to ship across the country instead can go to the university just a few miles away, said plant manager Dawson Wilkerson, himself a USM graduate.
``I may not be able to justify the expense of having some of that equipment here, but I can go there and have a result in half a day,'' he said.
The USM research team - working through the industry and business partnership of the polymer institute - has looked into the impact of ultraviolet rays for one company, and created prototype molds for another.
``We can do things in a university setting that individual companies cannot do,'' Thames said. ``We think we're the best economic development activity that southern Mississippi has going.''
Aid extends beyond research and development.
Western Container Corp. broke ground in an industrial park just outside Hattiesburg for its newest PET bottle plant in October 1997, intent on getting the site up and running as quickly as possible.
Through the fall, winter and early spring, the polymer institute and local government worked alongside management of the new plant, providing office space at nearby Pearl River Community College, said Bill McDonald, plant general manager. When the company needed space to meet with prospective employees, the college opened up classrooms.
The college also provided a technical writer for a year, to help the company write up the specifications and rules for its new employees and site, and helped Western Container through what McDonald calls a smooth transition to production launch in April 1998.
The focus of the institute and the expanding plastics business also zeroes in on the next generation of researchers and processors.
Five years ago, Petal High School in suburban Hattiesburg launched its own two-year polymer science program under the guidance of the university and the institute. The class is not just a vocational training session, said teacher Eddie Spalding.
Like the community as a whole, Spalding had no expertise in plastics before immersing himself in the course and working closely with local processors. He began his teaching career in elementary education. But he now speaks like a convert, excited about the opportunities laid out before the program and its students. His business cards proclaim: ``Polymers are Fan-Plastic!!!''
The 40 students selected for the program study the chemistry of plastics. They must complete computer-aided-design classes. They create concept cars and are working on a new project to make key-chain fobs and shape thermoformed covers for trailer hitches.
``I want these kids to see it takes a lot of steps to actually make something,'' Spalding said. ``They might find they want to get involved in molding, they might want to design.''
Second-year students spend nearly 100 hours at plastics firms in the region, and this year also took on the task of teaching the Society of Plastics Engineers' ``Dr. Polly Polymer'' sessions to fourth-graders.
``At first, a lot of us had butterflies,'' said Joey Ethredge, who just finished his senior year at Petal High School and plans to continue studying polymers at nearby Jones County Junior College and USM. ``Then we started working with them on some experiments and you could see they got excited about it.
``You can ask them about thermosets and thermoplastics now, and they know the difference. That's more than I knew two years ago.''
One of Petal's first polymer science students is now a junior-year honors student at USM's polymer science program. Others are enrolled in junior college programs and studying everything from CAD to mold making, Spalding said.
The school's offerings also are expanding, with Spalding set to spend the summer prepping an 85-ton injection molding press donated by Sunbeam-Oster Co. Inc., which runs a molding operation in the same Hattiesburg industrial park that is home to a half-dozen processors. He one day intends to bring his students to the point where they can set up and produce short-run parts for area manufacturers.
The polymer institute, meanwhile, is preparing to expand the high school program north into Canton, where school officials near the site of Nissan's new assembly plant want to launch a similar program that will link the school to plastics processors moving into that area, Evans said.
Both the school training and the continuing influx of plastics companies are leading to a wider-trained work force for firms moving into the area.
Mississippi, like other states in the Deep South, may have a reputation as a source of cheap labor, but it is not mere dollars and cents that are the true draw. Instead it is the wealth of a strong, motivated work force, said Charles Phillips, plant manager for Dickten & Masch Manufacturing Co.'s Hattiesburg operation.
Nashotah, Wis.-based custom molder Dickten & Masch opened its first plant outside its home city at Hattiesburg in 1998, following customers that had relocated south. It also was fighting a continuing labor shortage in Wisconsin, where its home county unemployment rate at the time was under 1 percent.
Hattiesburg, then with an unemployment rate of about 4 percent, was not impoverished, but did offer a wealth of highly motivated workers who were willing and able to learn new skills.
``The selling point was the availability of labor,'' he said. ``Our labor costs are similar to what we had in the North, but what we had was an availability of labor - trained labor that was technically capable of whatever we needed.''
And they can learn quickly, noted Western Container's McDonald.
``That was a concern for us,'' he said. ``There are only 50,000 people in Hattiesburg. Where was I going to find the people I needed?''
Out of the initial 60-person work force, only eight had any plastics experience. Training backed by the polymer institute together with the community's work ethic overcame that worry, he said.
There is some culture shock for Northern companies moving into the Deep South for the first time. Wellman Inc.'s Bay St. Louis PET resin plant is linked to an extensive weather warning system in case of emergencies - the company was in the midst of start-up activities when Hurricane Georges swept in, forcing it to shut down.
Shrewsbury, N.J.-based Wellman also has spotted alligators on its property, including one last year measuring more than 10 feet in length. Other plastics processors in the Port Bienville Industrial Park, a one-time plantation complete with a slave cemetery accessed from the Wellman property, report spotting everything from wild boar to panther roaming the woods. And Mardi Gras may be centered in nearby New Orleans, but the entire region celebrates it as an unofficial holiday.
But Port Bienville offers more than wildlife and easy access to wild parties. State and local governments provide a deep-water port - adjacent to GE Plastics - and an extensive rail line and spurs that allow companies to both ship and receive via water, rail or truck.
Mississippi now is moving even more aggressively to target plastics specifically as one of four key industries through its ``cluster initiative.''
The study looks specifically at the needs of those four industries - plastics, automotive, lumber products and communications and information technology - and considers where Mississippi falls short, as well as its strengths.
``We're trying to see how we can further encourage growth in these industries,'' said Clay Lewis, senior technology officer for the Mississippi Development Authority.
The cluster concept is built around a basic reality of human nature: Where one company is successful, others will follow, and they can all help each other grow.
Western Container, for instance, moved into Hattiesburg because it was seeking a location that could offer it better access to Southern and Eastern customers. Wellman likewise was seeking a location providing it greater access to the West and South and into Mexico. But once Wellman settled into Bay St. Louis, Western Container also had easier access to PET for its bottles, which could offer some significant savings on transportation costs and stronger business connections between the supplier and customer, McDonald noted.
``It's obvious that the state of Mississippi is making a real effort,'' said Jim Enloe, human resources manager for GE Plastics' Bay St. Louis facility. ``You always feel like you're working closely with the folks in charge here.''
Even firms with little in common maintain they can view their own potential by seeing how the community welcomed other firms.
Start-up firm Mississippi Plastics Technology was created by California inventors and investors to build a pilot plant to launch production of Parmax, a proprietary reinforced thermoplastic. California simply does not offer a business climate easily accessible for any industry involved with chemicals, said Robert Gagne, MPT president.
So the firm went in search of someplace that was more welcoming. Mississippi, with a growing polymer industrial base and open arms for large and growing facilities offered that, he said. Gagne has bought into the state's concept of a plastics-centric base.
``This polymer cluster concept makes a lot of sense,'' said Gagne. ``Mississippi really wants to attract more high-technology companies, and they can really make a corridor stretching from Hattiesburg to the [Gulf] Coast.''