Leaders of the Society of Plastics Engineers trying to shore up finances as the association struggles to attract a younger generation of members have proposed selling SPE's headquarters building in Brookfield, Conn., cutting jobs and reducing the amount of dues money rebated to sections and divisions.
Unless SPE takes action, and spends money to attract members from the electronically plugged-in Generations X and Y, the organization faces a long, debilitating decline in membership, according to an ``open letter to the leadership'' from SPE President Bill O'Connell and treasurer Barbara Arnold-Feret.
The majority of current SPE members are more than 50 years old. ``If we do nothing, SPE will fade out of existence as the last baby boomers retire,'' the letter said.
Generation X and Generation Y are attracted to electronic interaction, but frequent section meetings and golf outings may leave them cold, it said. SPE needs to invest quickly in new technologies geared toward people in the range of 25-40 years old, and develop new ways for them to volunteer.
The letter does not spell out specific new programs to lure younger professionals.
``New benefits and services geared specifically for this demographic will need to be quickly introduced,'' the letter said. ``SPE will need to further invest in new technologies demanded by these groups for the distribution of its benefits.''
The entire industry, not just SPE, faces the challenge of drawing young people to fill positions vacated by older people as they retire, said Susan Oderwald, SPE executive director. SPE will play a key role in handling that big turnover, she said in a July 28 telephone interview.
Job growth in technical fields will remain strong, but a declining pool of skilled workers will generate fierce competition among manufacturing sectors, Oderwald said.
The letter was e-mailed July 23 to about 1,000 SPE activists, including council members, people who serve on the boards of sections and divisions, and members of any committee. SPE also posted the letter on its Web site.
SPE moved into its two-story, 36,000-square-foot Brookfield headquarters in 1980. Oderwald said it is much bigger than SPE needs. The society leases part of the first floor to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
SPE tried unsuccessfully to sell the building a few years ago, she said.
The society also will eliminate four to six positions from its current staff of 30 employees, including part-timers. Oderwald said the job cuts will save about $250,000 a year.
Changing the dues rebate structure could generate about $200,000 in savings. The proposal would cut total rebates by two-thirds.
Declining membership and the income earned from dues is the big problem. SPE membership, after declining a modest 3-4 percent since 2004, is down by 6 percent through mid-2008, reflecting weakness in the economy, according to the open letter.
Membership losses could mount as high as 9 or 10 percent by year's end, the letter said. Oderwald said current membership is about 18,200. Membership peaked in the early 1990s at around 38,000.
In the letter, O'Connell and Arnold-Feret used some apocalyptic terms to call for action, saying, ``it is probable SPE will cease to exist in less than 10 years'' unless over the next three years it can shift member benefits and marketing plans to appeal to younger people and to those with limited time to volunteer, while retaining its core of older members.
Longer-term, from three to five years, ``we must completely rethink and redesign our basic structure, governance and operations.''
Oderwald called the letter ``a very preliminary document'' with a broad outline of future action. The budget has been approved by the finance committee and will go to the executive committee in early August, and to council for final approval in October. The council is made up of one representative from each section and division.
SPE's executive staff and officers also will hold two Web seminars, open to all SPE members, in September and October to answer questions about the budget and the future strategy.
Arnold-Feret said SPE is healthy right now, but the 66-year-old organization must transform to reflect changing demographics.
``It's a long-term approach and part of repositioning SPE to not only appeal to younger members, but also make a stronger, better and more of the `in' place to be in professional associations in plastics,'' Arnold-Feret said in an interview.
``We want to make sure that we don't have a crisis. I don't want to give the impression that we're going to go out of business, but we want to avert having a crisis,'' she said.