Barbara Arnold-Feret, a 33-year veteran of the Society of Plastics Engineers, has never been shy about expressing her feelings about the society — SPE, and also about society as a whole.
It's harder for new companies, especially smaller ones, to crack into the plastics industry today, she said. Smaller players used to be more common, but now there are large numbers of impediments to competing for smaller firms, as well as a restrictive setup of resources that manufacturers need, she said.
"Plastics as a whole is becoming less friendly to startups and stand-alone innovators. The challenges are increasing — capital and credit restrictions, skilled labor shortages, a smaller number of resin distributors and fewer young people learning the trades," Arnold-Feret said.
That adds up to big obstacles to overcome in what she said is the "critical first five years of a startup."
Another barrier: "Major corporations, with their desire to make the purchasing process more efficient, have a pretty large hurdle for startups and small business to overcome when they want to qualify as a supplier," she said.
Arnold-Feret said the solution is stronger support for small business for low-cost trade school education, "home-grown" banking and lending, a change in the existing Small Business Administration loan programs to better help small business, and easing of regulations that restrict growth in firms with less than 100 employees.
She also favors "trade policies that favor U.S. firms."
Plastics is not getting enough skilled shop-floor labor, and she said the issue is harshest on jobs such as machine mechanics, maintenance leaders and process supervisors.
"What came home to me is we don't really do a good job [of promoting] plastics manufacturing to the parents, and as a result, it's very difficult to get young people involved in a plastics manufacturing career because the parents aren't sure it's a good job with a good future," Arnold-Feret said.
The key is getting young people into a hands-on experience, she said. Hot items like 3D printing excites them, but she said: "It's harder to get them involved in mainstream plastics, like injection molding."
But it's worth the effort for plastics companies to get involved in younger grades, she said. They come home and tell their parents, "Look at what I did in school today."