FREMONT, OHIO (Aug. 9, 11 a.m. ET) — Just about everyone in manufacturing has heard about the shortage of skilled workers in mold making, machining, molding technology and welding. How about color matching? What's that?
It's an obscure, but important, profession that impacts nearly every consumer product, from shampoo bottles to car interiors. No headlines lament the “skills gap” of people who are skilled at the coloring of plastics. And that's the problem in attracting students to Terra State Community College in rural northwestern Ohio, home of the only program focused on the coloring of plastics in the United States — maybe even the world. The occupation, as well as Terra's color program, suffers from a low profile.
Just what does a color matcher do? The tight-knit band of graduates has to explain that to customers, co-workers and even their own families.
Steve Esker, a 1994 grad, describes the color fraternity: “It's a hidden secret with a great group of people.”
About 200 students have graduated since the two-year associate degree in Coloring of Plastics began in 1988, said Jamie Przybylski, who heads the program and is its lone professor.
Backed by strong support from the color industry, the Fremont school used to launch as many as 15 graduates a year. Now that number has dwindled to just five, or even fewer — and now Terra and industry leaders are pushing to increase enrollment so that the program remains viable.
Przybylski (pronounced “Shabilski”) said Terra is responding with online classes and pointing out that color skills learned at Terra can be used not just in plastics, but also in textiles, coatings, paint and inks.
Vocational training is getting national attention, propelled by global competition and an aging U.S. industrial workforce. Community colleges are expected to play a key role in plugging America's manufacturing skills gap. Even though U.S. unemployment is stuck at 8 percent, the National Association of Manufacturers reports that 600,000 factory job openings remain unfilled.
The shortage could threaten future U.S. economic growth — even as some manufacturing work returns from China, a process dubbed reshoring.
Terra's color-matching degree is a small part of the solution.
“If somebody, on their resume, had a color background of any sort, they would have a huge advantage,” said Dustin Bowersox, senior manager of color at retailer Target Corp. and a 1998 Terra color-matching graduate.
For an industry in search of young people, programs like Terra Community College are critical. The quandary faces color compounders and processors, and trade associations like the Society of Plastics Engineers. SPE's Color and Appearance Division is a major backer of the Terra color school.
“One of the problems — and it's in organizations of all kind — is that young people don't come out,” Przybylski said. You go to our Retech, and especially to our board meeting, everybody's got gray hair. Everybody's getting older. There's very few young people.”
Degree of a different color
A joke among Terra grads is that all plastics color experts come from Fremont, a small town along the Ohio Turnpike between Toledo and Sandusky. That might not be an exaggeration.
In the mid-1980s, leaders of SPE's Color and Appearance Division realized the sector needed formal training. Engineering schools didn't get into color, even though color is what makes a consumer product pop off the shelves, and industrial designers need to understand how pigments can even change a part's physical properties.
“It's not taught anywhere. That's the problem. Most of the people in the industry have learned on the job,” Przybylski said. “The Color and Appearance Division was looking for a place to start a program, because there was no place to go to school to learn how to be a color matcher. What was happening is companies were stealing people from each other. So that's how it got started. It was a need in industry for trained people.”
Bruce Muller, who owned Accurate Color in Lodi, Ohio, said industry leaders made sure Terra succeeded. “This actually united this industry to get behind this program. It was of interest to everybody in the industry.”
Przybylski said color executives have been very supportive. “They helped with the curriculum and they helped with the equipment, donated money for scholarships and for equipment. We've had guest speakers from industry,” he said.
During the Color and Appearance Division's search, Terra stood out. The technical school already had a plastics technology program. Importantly, Fremont is a good location, said Bob Charvat, an industry veteran who was an early supporter.
“I would say if you used Terra Community College as a center, about 85 percent of the color-matching operations were in a 500-mile radius,” said Charvat, who ran the color pigment areas of Engelhard Corp.'s Harshaw Chemical laboratory in Cleveland. He drove to Fremont to teach one night a week.
Chuck Swearingen became the first color instructor. The first associate degree class graduated in 1990.
Industry put its money where its mouth is — as well as, for Chroma Corp., two of its offspring. That first class included David Bryan, son of Gary Bryan, vice president of manufacturing operations at Chroma. Terra has no dorms, so he shared an apartment with Bud Parsons, whose father, Burt Parsons, was Chroma plant manager.
“We were out of high school working for Chroma and trying to decide what our career path was,” David said. Upon graduation, he went back to Chroma in the Chicago suburb of McHenry, Ill., but later returned to Fremont, where he works out of his house as senior account manager for F&D Plastics Inc. in Leominster, Mass.
Colorful history, challenges
Over the years, the Color and Appearance Division has donated about $250,000 to Terra Community College, CAD members donated equipment for the well-equipped plastics laboratory that covers the processing spectrum, with four injection molding machines, an extrusion blow molder, a small thermoformer, three extruders and a rotational molding machine.
Przybylski said students get a broad grounding in processing and colorant principles.
Terra has a full complement of color-lab equipment, with light booths, spectrophotometers and modern equipment, as well as testing instruments.
SPE's Ohio Firelands Section provided $1,200 scholarships, as the northwestern Ohio section began placing a heavy emphasis on coloring of plastics. Also, displaced workers could get government retraining money to learn new skills. And companies paid for employee training.
Terra's color program benefitted from the available financial help.
The Firelands Section played an important role, said Muller, who helped form the section and served as a national SPE councilor. Muller also served on the Color and Appearance Division's board of directors.
Representing Terra, Przybylski served on the Firelands board of directors and was treasurer.
Monthly Firelands meetings in the 1990s would draw 50 people to hear speakers address color topics. Muller would bring five or 10 people from Accurate Color. They had Christmas parties and section picnics.
But the good times would not last. Some big local color houses closed or were consolidated into bigger owners. Facing global competition, some area processors folded.
Membership in SPE, like other trade associations, began to erode. Participation dwindled for several years, and the Ohio Firelands Section officially folded in 2010, according to Newtown, Conn.-based SPE.
“When I first started it was pretty big, and then as time went on, less people were coming. And then it got to the point where the only people who were coming were the board members, and my students,” Przybylski said
That was a big blow, but Firelands money still goes to Terra students, because when section leaders closed out the books, they put all of it — about $80,000 — into an endowment for scholarships.
And Terra still has strong ties to the Color and Appearance Division. “They've always been a big supporter of us,” said Przybylski, who is on the CAD board and edits the newsletter. The CAD also contributes $5,000 to $10,000 a year and pays the cost for students to attend division's annual conference.
Distance learning could be a way to attract much-needed students to Terra Community College. For several years, Terra has offered three introductory classes online. They are Introduction to Color, Colorants for Plastics and Introduction to Plastics. Online students earn a certificate.
Students have taken the online courses from Portugal, Italy, New Zealand and Michigan.
Challenges remain to getting students at the main campus. To find new students, school officials visit area high schools, talk to teachers and contact adult career centers.
Some companies cut back on paying for worker training. Przybylski said government funding also was reduced. “Now they won't pay for a two-year degree,” he said. “They want six months, nine months, that's it.” Terra also offers shorter certificates.
Another issue is the community-college mindset, where graduates tend to stay in the local area rather than relocate. Older people in dislocated-worker training often have a home and a spouse with his or her own job.
“This was a real important issue,” Muller said. “The first class we graduated, half of them didn't get a job because they couldn't leave Fremont.”
Przybylski agreed: “One of the problems we have is that, because this is a community college, most of the people that come here want to stay in the area. But most of the jobs are outside of the area. Our most successful students are the ones that have gone, moved away.”
“The key is moving,” said Bowersox, the head of color at Target. “You've gotta go to the job.”
Bowersox is a good example. A native of Fremont, he was going to study engineering at the University of Toledo, but at the last minute his loans fell through. His mom worked at Terra, so he entered the color program there. After graduating in 1998, he immediately got a job at GE Plastics ColorXpress color-matching service. He moved to Uniform Color Co. in Holland, Mich, as a technical liaison with customers.
In 2008, he joined Target in Minneapolis. Bowersox heads a global color team that works with vendors on every material, including textiles, ceramics and plastics — all with a two-year associate degree. So far, Bowersox has no additional college. “Color theory is color theory regardless of the medium,” he said.
Przybyiski thinks the online courses will give a boost to the color program. Chemists and engineers have taken them. “Maybe you're a chemical engineer or a mechanical engineer and they go work for a color company. Well, they don't have any of this background, so they'll take it to understand more about the business,” he said.
Terra color graduates endorse the online learning push as a way to introduce color to the vast majority of industry people who know little or nothing about the subject.
Just understanding the terminology is a big help, said Esker, the 1994 grad, who is technical sales manager at Paramount Colors Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “It's an unbelievable class,” he said. Esker added that “chronic knob twisters” on the third shift really need to take the online classes. “You have shift supervisors who know nothing about color,” he said. “I think if you give them basic knowledge there can be a lot less rework.”
Mark Tyler agrees. “We find that a lot in the industry. Sometimes you have people dealing with color that don't know anything about it,” said the 1992 graduate, who is a color technologist at Ticona Engineering Polymers in Florence, Ky. “You see this color all around you, you don't think about it.”
Eight Terra graduates work at American Colors Inc. in Sandusky. “It's difficult to find good training resources for color,” said Steve Foos, a 1994 Terra alum. “There's one thing about the color industry — it is still not widely understood. We still have people who don't understand color,” he said.
Foos said Terra “graduates people who speak the language and understand the industry.”
All four of the Terra people quoted in this story are from the Fremont area.