United Southern Industries Inc. of Forest City, N.C., was looking for help last summer training its employees and reducing turnover, so executives wrote a letter to North Carolina state officials.
Six months later, the injection molding company got what it was asking for - state financial support and help getting schools and government agencies to work together to support a worker training initiative.
Since then, the company has trained 32 workers in the program, with 29 of them passing an industry-certified program for injection press operators.
USI and North Carolina state officials told the story at an NPE panel discussion June 24, and touted it as an example of how industry and worker training agencies should work together.
The panel, organized by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington and the National Association of Workforce Boards, was designed to highlight the plastics industry to work-force training agencies and to pave the way for similar efforts in other parts of the country. The panel is one of the first steps taken under an alliance that NAWB and SPI formed this spring.
``Even with unemployment at a high point nationally, there are shortages of employees with the right skills,'' said Stephanie Powers, chief executive officer of Washington-based NAWB. ``Now is a critical time to build an alliance between the work-force boards and the plastics industry.''
Joe Bennett, president and chief executive officer of USI, said the industry needs to be aggressive about getting worker training funding because it can help the industry stay globally competitive.
``As this erosion takes place in manufacturing, and we have seen the tip of the iceberg, we have to grab these dollars and make them go into legally defensible certification programs,'' Bennett said.
The North Carolina program helped USI pay the $800-per-person cost to use SPI's satellite-based training program, called the Plastics Learning Network. The company claimed that the training immediately reduced employee turnover and improved quality.
For example, USI said turnover dropped from 471 employees in 2000, when the economy was booming, to just 24 in the first seven months of its fiscal year 2003. While that drop occurred during a time when unemployment rose and many workers stayed put for economic reasons, USI credited the program with helping.
State officials in North Carolina look at the program as a way to help retain existing companies in a state whose manufacturing sector has been hard hit by job losses in the textile and furniture segments.
``We're at a critical point in our state, manufacturingwise,'' said Roger Shackleford, executive director of the North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development. ``It makes us a little nervous.''
Besides the North Carolina program, Florida also has developed a training effort closely linked to SPI's satellite learning system.
Florida had identified plastics as one of a handful of industries targeted for growth, and officials there said they were looking for a project to train incumbent workers.
SPI approached the state several years ago with a strong, well-organized proposal, said Lucia Fishburne, communications director of Workforce Florida Inc., the state's worker training agency.
In Florida, officials took federal money and used it to fund a statewide training program involving 33 companies and nine educational institutions. The program uses SPI's Plastics Learning Network to provide training.
The workers who were trained saw their pay rise 10 percent in a year, and 84 percent of those the state has been able to track down remain in the plastics industry, she said.
One of the participants in the Florida effort, Precise Technology Inc.'s plant in St. Petersburg, Fla., put a satellite dish at its plant and invited workers from other companies to participate, in part because it didn't want to train its workers and see competitors lure them away.
David Outlaw, technical training manager for Precise, said the program has served as a springboard for employees to get additional skills.
The panel addressed an audience of about 40 work-force board officials from the Midwest and plastics industry executives. Some speakers urged plastics industry managers to get involved with their local work-force boards, which are the volunteer boards that set policy and divvy up federal money at the local worker agencies.
Several speakers said putting money into training existing workers is a new focus for government worker-training agencies, which traditionally have focused on helping the unemployed get skills. Shackleford said the effort in his state faced some resistance from government workers concerned about government subsidies of business.
``We heard corporate-welfare kinds of comments,'' he said. ``The challenge was to break down the culture barriers about working closely with business.''