U.S. plastics processing companies have shed more than 100,000 jobs since the manufacturing industry's economic slowdown started in 2000. While that has left some workers struggling to find a job, businesses are starting to worry about the reverse - a looming shortage of skilled labor.
It may seem counterintuitive to worry about finding workers at a time when manufacturers overall have shed 2 million jobs. But the topic took center stage at two recent Washington hearings, with plastics executives and other manufacturers voicing their concern.
Some government officials agree that there will be more demand for plastics industry workers.
A recent Department of Labor study, for example, predicts employment in plastics processing will grow from 630,000 today to 800,000 by 2012. While industry employment remains down from a high of 740,000 in 2000, assistant secretary Emily Stover DeRocco cited plastics and rubber processing in congressional testimony June 2 as one of several segments of the manufacturing industry that will continue to grow.
Manufacturers said they are concerned about finding workers with the right technical skills to keep their companies competitive globally.
``Advancing technology is raising knowledge requirements throughout the economy and creating serious skill gaps in the labor force,'' said Roger Joyce, an executive with architectural products maker Bilco Co. in West Haven, Conn. He testified for the National Association of Manufacturers at a June 2 hearing of the House Small Business Committee in Washington.
Several representatives of the Society of the Plastic Industry Inc. appeared at another hearing, a May 27 Labor Department panel on training needs in advanced manufacturing companies.
Maureen Steinwall, president of injection molder Steinwall Inc. in Coon Rapids, Minn., said programs should consider the different learning styles of adults, including those who struggle in traditional academic settings.
``We have some incredibly bright workers that may not learn best through the written word that are just waiting for us to show them,'' she said.
Several industry officials said government could help financially.
Jay Cude, president of injection molder Coeur Inc. in Washington, N.C., told the Labor Department forum that industry should define what skills are needed, as SPI has done with its operator certification program.
``With financial support, this could be replicated in other industries and expanded in ours,'' he said.
Matt Coffey, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association in Fort Washington, Md., said the federal government should consider reinstating industry-specific national training programs operated in combination with trade groups.
He said NTMA, which includes mold-making companies, used to run such a program with Labor Department funding, but the Clinton administration shifted the money to block-grant funding for state training programs.
``Today, none of the states invest any of that block-grant money into high-tech training for the disadvantaged in our industry,'' he said.
Other countries have more government financing of technical training, he said: ``This is not a burden our competitors face, as most technical training is encouraged and paid for by foreign governments.''
Coffey said some Labor Department grants have funded current NTMA efforts to develop skill standards, but he said more financial support is needed, including tax credits for training existing workers.
DeRocco said the government is boosting some funding for training, including $250 million more for community college training programs. She said the Bush administration is pushing to establish ``personal re-employment accounts'' with as much as $3,000 per worker for training expenses.
That program passed the House on June 3.
But Democrats on the committee pointed to administration cuts in spending on programs aimed at small businesses and workers, including the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. And NAM's Joyce said he was disappointed that the federal government's Workforce Investment Act funding was cut 10 percent.