Those of us employed in the U.S. plastics industry should pause to contemplate the likely state of our workforce in both the short- and long-term future. The former may be rather dispiriting; the latter needn't be.
The U.S. economy in general and U.S. manufacturing industries in particular are slowly, tentatively emerging from the deepest downturn since the 1930s. Ordinarily one would witness a resurgence of hiring in anticipation of vast pent-up demand; recessions ultimately reach a nadir from which recovery ensues. However, today the rates of U.S. unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly elevated. To some extent this reflects the unusual uncertainty to which the head of the Federal Reserve Bank recently alluded. Also to no small extent this can be attributed to the oppressive anti-business (or at least ignorant-of-business) policy making by the federal government and Congress. Yet our educational system must also shoulder some of the blame.
One of the most imposing barriers to hiring in manufacturing industries is the shortage of requisite skills. A survey sponsored jointly by Deloitte LLP and the Manufacturing Institute in June 2010 focusing on public perceptions of manufacturing determined that the three most important factors buttressing American manufacturing competitiveness are work ethic, workforce skills, and worker productivity. Yet many U.S. manufacturers report they can't find workers with the skills required in the modern manufacturing workplace. There is a growing mismatch between the skills attained through varying years of education and those required on the plant floor.
Consultations with officials in diverse plastics processing businesses provide ample anecdotal evidence that this mismatch exists in our industry as well.
As we emerge from the Great Recession the merits of industrial policy must be reconsidered. The need for rethinking the curricula in our high schools, community colleges, vocational schools, and colleges must also be part of that deliberation.
In the same way, the plastics industry must undertake a fresh and creative review of its efforts to promote the study of polymer science and engineering. There should be a way to ensure that our educational system yields young people with the specialized skills required in blow molding, injection molding, rotational molding, advanced material processing — in effect all branches of plastics processing. The same applies to other critical components of the plastics industry such as additive chemistry, compounding, plastic part design, primary machinery and secondary equipment, tooling, and so on.
This is how we can restore the former plastics industry growth dynamic and ensure a growing plastics industry workforce.
Mooney is president of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C.