AKRON, OHIO Is the U.S. plastics market in danger of a brain drain?
That topic was tossed about recently at a round table held as part of the 25th anniversary of the University of Akron's Department of Polymer Engineering. The round table included:
c Frank Kelley, dean emeritus, who retired in 2006 after almost 30 years at UA.
c Joseph Gingo, chairman, president and chief executive officer of A. Schulman Inc., a compounder and distributor based in Fairlawn, Ohio.
c Tom Stanley, vice president of technology with resin maker Sabic Innovative Plastics LP in Pittsfield, Mass.
c Thomas Waltermire, CEO of Cleveland-based Team NEO, a regional economic development group. Waltermire has more than 30 years of plastics industry experience and previously served as chairman and CEO of leading compounder PolyOne Corp. in Avon Lake, Ohio.
The amount of foreign-born full-time science and engineering faculty at American colleges and universities has increased from 38 percent in 1992 to 47 percent last year, according to Kelley. Foreign enrollment in those programs also increased by 45 percent from 1996 to 2006, while American enrollment increased only 8 percent.
That trend is evident in the makeup of UA's polymer engineering graduate students for spring 2008. Of the program's 71 students, 59 are foreign-born.
A challenge for American businesses is to convince those students to remain in the United States after completing their studies. In the past, about 75 percent of graduates would do so, but Kelley said that number appears to be dropping.
``We've been retaining students, but it's a question of will this continue,'' he added. ``There's been an improvement in science-related job opportunities for foreign students in their native countries.''
The United States ``is in good shape as a country, but we've been trading on a gold mine from abroad. Now it's a question of if these students will go back home or go to their own grad schools.''
Gingo who spent more than 30 years with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio said that, historically, about half of the PhDs hired by Goodyear would come from India. But he added that more such graduates are now returning home to India.
In the U.S., Gingo said science and engineering programs are not attracting the base they once did, since many students who are skilled in math now aim for careers in finance.
To make themselves more competitive and attractive to foreign students, Waltermire said American plastics firms have to focus on new products in such areas as nanotechnology and biopolymers.
``Ohio's plastics industry became so successful and large because of the commercial success of 50 years ago,'' he said. ``We had the reputation of making products of the past and now we have to make new products. It's our job to make new products for future generations in the industry.''
To do so, Sabic's Stanley said U.S. firms need to focus their research and development efforts.
``The only way manufacturing can survive in North America and Europe is to make new products,'' Gingo said. ``We're not able to compete with commodity products from China.''
Waltermire added that there's a lack of qualified applicants for many skilled jobs in the current plastics market. Gingo also pointed out that R&D and marketing departments have to work together for growth.
``R&D can't throw a product over the wall and say `Go sell this' and hope there's a market,'' he said. ``And marketing can't make a request for a product that violates the third law of thermodynamics.''