The plastics industry is contending with what perhaps may be its scarcest resource.
As oil and gas prices fluctuate and frustrate, and as the mainstream media picks apart plastics for its perceived harm, the industry is facing a more daunting issue, especially in North America: a shortage of trained workers.
“We have heard from customers that there are not a sufficient amount of people coming up, especially in the tool and die ranks,” said Ann Johnson, owner of recruiting firm ProTech Inc., which has locations in North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
There really are no concrete numbers or statistics to quantify the issue, but a general lack of talent coming up through the ranks is a widespread concern resonating through many areas of the plastics industry.
Although experts interviewed for this story said that all sectors of the plastics industry are affected, there are certain sectors that are struggling more with the lack of talent, most notably, the tool and die making sector. In addition, there is a general paucity of engineering talent.
“There is no question the numbers are not what the industry needs,” said Bob Malloy, chairman of the plastics engineering department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
“It's a complicated problem and something I've thought about a lot,” Malloy said. “The number of graduates coming out trained in plastics is pretty small, relative to the size of the industry. Different sectors of the industry all are struggling with this. People are attracted to higher-tech things naturally — the medical-device industry, for example. The real heavy sort of manufacturing sectors have the greatest time attracting talent.”
There is a confluence of factors with limited yet very complex solutions. On one hand, there is a generation of young people for which manufacturing is not an attractive job prospect. On the other hand, when engineers are educated, there is a general lack of training, pointed out Jim Heilman, technical recruiter with Discovery Personnel Inc. in Burnsville, Minn., which specializes in recruitment for the plastics industry.
Heilman has been working with a large company that sells injection molding equipment. Ten years ago, the firm had five people in its training department. Now it has one.
“It makes it very difficult for young engineers to get that kind of training now,” Heilman said. “It's very hard to get started because you're deluged with so much technology now. It's a lot more complicated.
“There is such a dichotomy here. [With] 9 percent unemployment, we're having more trouble finding candidates than we ever have in the last 20 years. It's gotten extremely difficult. It would seem like we'd be chasing companies for jobs, but we're not.”
The machine and tooling industry side definitely has been greatly affected, said recruiter Russ Riendeau of Barrington, Ill.-based East Wing Group Inc.
“America [is] not producing enough engineers coming out of college,” he said. The hands-on, physically demanding work puts off some potential workers.
“The demographics just aren't there,” Riendeau said. Either machining or tooling has been offshored or there are engineers coming in from other countries. They are competent workers but they do not want to buy the business.
“They love to do the work but they do not want to buy the business,” he said.
Riendeau looks at the issue from his perspective as a behavioral psychologist. He looked at the last 25 years in the plastics industry and analyzed the number of years, on average, that a sales person or sales manager stays on the job. The figure is 2.7 to 3.2 years.
Riendeau said companies should be providing incentives and creating environments of good orientation and training. He said the industry is very incestuous, and it's getting re-treads.
“Labor is the highest cost in any company and yet, when you consider that fact, employees are our most important asset. If that's true, why aren't you incentivizing employees and rewarding for desired behavior? Why don't you have a good orientation program?” he asked.
Even for higher-skilled posts, officials have to look long and hard to find the right talent. Andy Myers, executive director of the Business & Technology Institute at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan., said his organization has been trying to fill the post of research director for the Kansas Polymer Research Center.
“The search is ongoing and open and live,” Myers said. “We spent a good year before we started the search, beating the bushes, seeing if we had some existing partners or contacts that might be interested.”
Any research director candidate has to have the right skills and combination of experience, but also has to be willing to relocate to Pittsburg. The center focuses on traditional polymer chemistry with bio-based starting materials.
Part of the solution may come from industry trade groups themselves. Organizations such as the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the International Wire & Cable Symposium and Conference have been making strides. Washington-based SPI has been using proactive methods to get younger people interested in the field, including creating YouTube videos. There also are scholarships offered by the Newtown, Conn.-based Society of Plastics Engineers.
Eatontown, N.J.-based IWCS has specifically said its officials have had a difficult time attracting young people to the industry. The group endowed scholarships at UMass-Lowell and the University of North Carolina.