On the matter of jobs, the North American plastics market is taking some baby steps forward only to be blown clear off the sidewalk by gale-force winds.
Smaller jobs creation at compounding or recycling firms is being overshadowed by much larger job losses that appear to be the result of long-awaited consolidation within the packaging sector.
In a non-scientific survey, I scanned 11 stories that Plastics News ran in the first seven months of the year, some of which I wrote myself. Those stories detailed the creation of a little more than 300 new plastics industry jobs, even though some of them will be phased in over several years.
The stories ranged from Infinity Compounding Corp. adding five jobs in New Jersey to Wellman Engineering Resins planning to add as many as 100 people in the next three years at a recycling plant in South Carolina. These were all positive stories. Reading them made you feel like some of the recessionary rubble was being lifted off of your head and that rescuers had found you, with searchlights strapped to their helmets, and were ready to lead you to the surface, where fresh and profitable air would fill your lungs.
But then PN also reported on goings-on at Solo Cup Co. and Berry Plastics Corp., where jobs still are being shed. Solo's decision to close an injection molding and thermoforming plant in Massachusetts by the end of 2012 alone will remove 360 jobs, canceling out the jobs creation in those 11 PN stories I referenced. Add Berry's loss of 435 jobs at three plastic sheet, tape and film plants by the end of the year, and it's just about one step forward, two steps back.
(And that's not even counting 880 jobs that Solo will lop off by the end of 2012 at a pair of plants where at least some plastic work is done.)
The bigger result of these and other moves is that the plastics industry's North American jobs total is likely to drop under 1 million when new figures are released later this year. The 1.1 million job number now in use dates back to 2007. And anyone in plastics or any other manufacturing sector doesn't have to be reminded that a lot of unpleasant economic events have happened in North America since 2007.
Just taking a quick look at some numbers with the help of veteran plastics consultant Peter Mooney shows that if 2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the economic meltdown that began in late 2007, and if plastics as the nation's third-largest manufacturing sector accounts for 5-10 percent of those jobs, then between 100,000 and 200,000 plastics manufacturing jobs could have disappeared.
And that possible 2007-09 job loss is on top of the estimated 200,000 jobs that vanished between 2002 and 2005, when roughly 1,700 U.S. plastics facilities closed their doors.
There's a bit of a silver lining out there, according to Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., the industry's leading trade group.
In a June speech, Carteaux pointed out that more than 70 percent of the 41,000 U.S. jobs created in May were in manufacturing. Using Mooney's formula, that means the plastics industry would have gained between 1,500 and 3,000 jobs from that expansion.
I hope that projection is true, but, based on observation, I have my doubts. So what's the issue here? Why aren't more plastic jobs being created?
In a recent conversation, Mooney pointed to some broader trends: a much slower economic recovery than in previous recessions, the unusual uncertainty cited by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, changes to health care and other legislation making the hiring landscape more tricky than in the past.
But Mooney who runs Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance. N.C. also cites the need for more training in the skills needed in plastics manufacturing.
This observation was driven home during my recent visit to thermoformer Joslyn Manufacturing Inc. in Macedonia, Ohio, where President Bret Joslyn said his company sometimes has problems filling open production jobs. Even former injection molding workers looking for work of which there are quite a few in northeastern Ohio sometimes can't master the skills needed for thermoforming, according to Joslyn.
Mooney sees this condition affecting many sectors, not just plastics.
All industries will rise and fall by their ability to attract and retain skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, he said.
Plastics isn't in this water-logged boat alone, of course. The U.S. unemployment rate remains at 9.5 percent, and stubbornly refuses to decline. These next 12 months will go a long way toward letting us know if North American plastics firms are inching their way back up the hill or if they're still slowly sliding.
Here's hoping we're not having this same conversation in mid-2011.