It's in the news nearly every day now: “How can manufacturing solve the skilled worker shortage? We need to get young people interested in manufacturing.”
If you got a skilled worker every time you heard that, the shortage would be over!
No doubt, finding good factory people is a major problem, probably the No. 1 issue facing U.S. plastics today, not to mention the entire manufacturing sector. “Reshoring” is bringing work back from China. And our nation's vocational education system does need to be rebuilt — one Manufacturing Day plant tour, one battling robot competition, one community college at a time.
Guess what? Companies struggled to find good industrial workers 25 years ago, as well, according to two experts in recruitment and training.
“The process itself hasn't changed. And so the skill set hasn't changed,” said Dennis Gros, who runs Gros Executive Recruiters.
Sure, machine controls have improved, and technological breakthroughs like all-electric injection molding presses make the process more repeatable.
“The robotics also have changed significantly, but in terms of the basic plastic process, companies are pretty much asking for the same,” he said.
Gros should know. He started his head-hunter business in 1989 — the same year Plastics News launched.
And although you still melt plastic with an injection molding machine, a reciprocating screw, then shoot it into a mold, the mechanics of matching employee skills with plastics factories has changed dramatically in the past quarter century, according to Gros and Rod Groleau, who founded RJG Inc.
“Obviously there's always a need for skilled people,” Groleau said. “Back then it was a whole different world. There were a lot more smaller molders. And so the industry was a lot more fragmented, and you had those companies that really wanted to differentiate themselves by wanting to train and do things differently. And there were others that wanted business as usual.”
Molding the Masters
RJG, based in Traverse City, Mich., offers the Master Molder certification — which has become a plastics industry standard for molding expertise. So far 813 people have become certified as Master Molder II. RJG reports that 43 people are active, certified trainers at plastics plants far and wide — a “train-the-trainer” concept that has spread Master Molder expertise.
Groleau credited RJG's second employee, Norm Ward, with coming up with the grading system for the Master Molder designation.
“He really understood the floor mentality and some of the problems,” Groleau said. “He put this together, including remedial math, which is still an issue today.”
Ward came up with the idea of small groups of students working in the classroom and at least half the time working on a molding machine.
“The implementation of it was really good. It was boot camp for molders, and that's what it still is today,” Groleau said.
Groleau said injection molding machines are very repeatable now than they were back in 1989. He praised “the ability of the machine to repeat the physics without wandering off the process. It used to be necessary to tamper with the process to get the machine to repeat it, and that's just not the case anymore.”
Now, Groleau said, the major issue is consistency of the raw material, the resin. And even though young people are more accustomed to using a computer than turning a wrench, he thinks molders will always need troubleshooters who can think on their feet.”
“The skill of problem solving is still one that has to be developed,” he said.