“With all the advancements and changes happening right now in the industry, there just isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for recruiting or training individuals,” she said. “In many of the conversations I have had with members, patience and timing is key here. Recruiting people and changing perceptions about manufacturing isn't an overnight solution.”
Still, even if companies are not sure how to address the problem, the association said executives “overwhelmingly” put challenges with workforce development ahead of their second-ranked problem, new business development and sales growth, which scored 27 percent.
“To no surprise, workforce development challenges trump all others when respondents were asked to identify their top three challenges, issues or problems to be addressed by executive teams in 2017,” the report said, noting that workforce has been the top issue for six years.
“The focus on this area has become increasingly high,” it said. “In six years, the percent of plastics processors who are focusing on workforce development in some capacity as a top challenge for their company has more than doubled.”
Terry Minnick, president of consulting firm Molding Business Services Inc. in Florence, Mass., is not surprised. As business conditions improve, challenges shift from finding new orders to finding workers to meet those orders.
“Many people out there who have a reasonable business are doing better than they have in a long time,” he said. “In 2008 and 2009, no one talked about how difficult it was to find workers.”
MBS, which advises plastics clients on both recruiting and mergers, said companies can have problems recruiting skilled staff, he said.
“A lot of people have had so much trouble finding people they have turned to other things,” including more automation, Minnick said. “In the plastics space, there is full employment now.”
Another plastics industry recruiter said the survey reflects that companies are identifying workforce issues as a need, but it may not have risen to critical levels.
“Managers are saying, ‘This is what I need, workforce development, but I'm not ready to pay for it,'” said Dennis Gros, president of Gros Executive Recruiters Inc. in Franklin, Tenn. “I don't mean to be critical. … It's a function of profitability. Profitability is hard to come by.”
Pressure on profit has kept wages down, he said, even as companies report problems finding workers, which should push salaries up. But he does see pressure growing in 2017 for “slight upward” wage pressure.
Gros said the MAPP poll results also may reflect the experience and more limited resources available to small and mid-sized companies. He noted that 83 percent of the respondents came from companies with $50 million or less in annual sales.
“If you're in the plastics business, it's obviously capital-intensive,” he said. “You put another machine on the floor, you've made a significant statement of growth. It may impress the next customer.
“When you make an investment in the workforce, it is an intangible investment that the bank won't recognize and your customers may not recognize,” he said.
The survey also reported on economic conditions, with a general sense that “plastics manufacturers are anticipating increased or steady business activity and sales,” according to the report.
More than 90 percent of the respondents said they expected first-quarter business activity to either remain the same or increase.