Have you ever heard this quip? “There are only two ways to get into the plastics business: either you're born into it or by mistake.”
I heard it at a conference a few weeks ago and it got a big laugh. But with our Rising Stars special report this week, I'm reminded that it's critically important to keep up the effort to recruit talented, bright people into manufacturing — and specifically into plastics.
Experts say young people aren't going into manufacturing. They're steered away by parents and high school counselors into fields that appear more promising, like health care.
The “Rising Stars” profiles that start on Page 9 make for really interesting reading, But one stands out because the story was so difficult to condense.
Dan Chase, the senior supplier quality engineer at Haemonetics Corp. in Braintree, Mass., told us how he got started in plastics — and he definitely wasn't born into it, nor did he stumble into plastics by mistake.
Although he almost stumbled out of plastics, which would have been a shame!
Chase explained that he grew up a mile from Nypro Inc.'s headquarters in Clinton, Mass., and he remembers sitting next to the factory watching the robots and molding presses run. When he was in first grade, he wrote an essay about how he wanted to be a plastics engineer.
When he was 14, he picked up a drafting contract at Nypro, and before long he was interning at the company.
You read that right — his dream wasn't to be drafted by the Red Sox. It was to be drafting at Nypro.
Here's part of his profile that didn't fit with the rest on Page 9:
“Since I was a kid working in the office, they used to have the college interns come to me to ask questions about pretty much anything,” Chase wrote. “I quickly found out that while they had plenty of book learning, they didn't really know much about plastics or engineering in real terms — only what they knew from textbooks.”
By the time he went to college, he majored — not in plastics engineering — but in archeology and African studies.
But Chase knew that with his experience, he could always come back to plastics manufacturing.
“I knew that even if I didn't have the engineering degree, I'd still be able to find a job in the field based on work experience, even if it was a junior position or in a blue-collar job — God forbid I had to work my way up, right?
“Manufacturing is great in that way, it's more about what you can do than what degree you have,” Chase said.
Perception vs. reality
I'm not sure if there's a lesson about recruiting bright future leaders in Chase's story. I'm sorry to tell you, but most first graders don't aspire to be plastics engineers.
But the fact that so many bright young people are finding their way into plastics, and are sharing their stories with Plastics News readers again this year, is encouraging.
The perception of manufacturing is that it's unskilled labor, with no future. Go to work in a factory and it's likely there will be layoffs in your future, because all the factories are moving to China and Mexico.
The reality is that manufacturing is growing and has a bright future, and needs skilled workers.
Yet the problem persists. Plastics managers all say their biggest headache is recruiting talented young people into the industry.
If everyone is having the same problem, then it's obviously an opportunity for some companies to differentiate themselves by having a good solution. We see them all the time: apprentice programs, internships, investments in training, links with high schools and colleges, even hiring older workers instead of just focusing on youth.
This can all work. I think the key is to have a strategy and devote the resources necessary to make it successful.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.