Bay City, Mich. — Bay Plastics Machinery Co. LLC (BPM) is seeing increased demand for its pelletizers from domestic customers in the automotive and building markets as well as new clients overseas in Europe and Asia.
If only the Bay City-based company was seeing an increase in job applicants for the second-shift machinists needed to handle the growth, President Jason Forgash told U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint).
Like many companies in the plastics industry, the third-generation, family-owned machine manufacturer has an immediate need for skilled workers but the candidate pool has pretty much dried up around them.
In Bay City, a community of 34,000 nestled on the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, Forgash said he struggles to fill jobs with benefits that could support a family. He chalks up the dearth of interested applicants to a lost generation of students steered away from vocational education and pointed toward the college-prep path.
"Back in the '40s and '50s everyone wanted to have a skilled trade. College wasn't a necessity," said Forgash, who was recently elected to the board of education for Bangor Township Schools. "We've changed that focus to make every high school student college-ready and I think that's cost us a generation of skilled workers — hands-on employees."
To address the problem, Forgash would like to see renewed emphasis on all career options about the time high school students get deeper into college-prep math programs like Algebra II, which has been a debated subject in Michigan.
"This direction has cost our kids the ability to experience high school electives in wood shop, metal shop, automotive repair, building trades and drafting," Forgash said. "I would like to see federal programs in place that would allow students to replace Algebra II with advanced metal shop or an apprentice program to learn the job skills they will need to fill the voids of our retiring skilled employees. We have lost a generation of individuals trained to be machinists, assemblers, welders and more."
Some universities are letting students fulfill general math requirements with quantitative learning classes instead of college-level algebra, including Michigan State University.
"An important part of these courses is to go beyond just manipulating symbols on a page and coming up with the right answer, and to reflect on what those answers mean in a specific context," Vince Melfi, an associate professor who teaches statistics and probability at MSU, told the website HigherEducation.com.
Kildee, who once sat on the Flint Board of Education, agreed with Forgash that manufacturers need support to increase their candidate pool. He said the federal government, particularly the departments of education and labor, should focus on two changes for starters.
"One is incentivizing public education systems to get back to providing career technical training, metal shop, wood shop, those kinds of experiences that might keep a kid in school because they see their skills as somehow being relevant to the education or the thing they're interested in. That's a big one," Kildee said. "And then, supporting a business like this with on-the-job workforce training. A company like this takes, I won't say risk, but makes a bet on an individual. I think there's a way for us to provide more support for on-the-job training through partially funded apprenticeship programs, for example. There's a whole area where we could do a better job."
As he toured BPM's two facilities for manufacturing and assembly, Kildee met 23-year-old Luke Prieur, a recent hire who took a year of high school classes at an off-site career center where he studied machine trades.
"I was planning to go to college but it didn't work out that way," Prieur said, after grinding a journal to hold a bearing that must spin with calculated precision.
"This controls consistency," he added. "If it doesn't run perfectly true, then the machine's not going to run right and you're not going to get good pellets."
Prieur was a celebrated hire at BPM, which has 32 full-time employees.
"He's young, comes to work every day, and works hard when he's here," Forgash said. "He has some experience and knowledge base. We'll give him the rest."
While the career centers do a good job of introducing and training students for manufacturing careers, they pull students from their home schools and friends for about four-hour intervals, which deters some teens from signing up. That's why BPM officials would like to see more done in high schools.
Gordon Lewis, BPM's board chairman, said his high school had a wing with an auto shop, machine shop and a wood shop.
"It was an honorable part of a high school education," Lewis said. "Those people graduated with the ability to go into a job with a little bit of specific training. And that's discouraged now from the administrations through the school boards. It's not only not taught in high school today, it's discouraged."
One of BPM's three mechanical engineers started as a machinist. He's got a desk job now next to the company library with folders and binders related to their hundreds of custom machines. Outside the engineers' office and just beyond some inventory of service parts, Forgash pointed to another BPM original: a water bath made from proprietary plastic.
"Normally our water baths are stainless steel," he said. "This customer's product can't touch metal. We had to design, develop and source the complete plastic water bath. The water pump and heat exchanger are all plastic. The water can't have any metal contact as well. The application is likely medical or electronics. That's something pretty unique we were able to put together."
Kildee then stepped into a nearby assembly job. He installed an upper feed roll into a pelletizer cutting chamber. In another area, BPM workers fired up a test line producing nylon pellets to demonstrate the extrusion and cooling processes.
As his hour-long tour ended, Kildee said he would work to break down barriers in public education, exports and access to capital for small manufacturers like BPM.
"This is the kind of company we want to see continue to grow — a long-time, family-owned business," Kildee said. "This is the kind of company that makes America the greatest manufacturing country in the world."
Kildee's tour was arranged through the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association.