Twenty years ago, when the group that became the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors was just getting started, the vexing issue driving company executives was building a skilled workforce.
Today, you could say it's "déjà vu all over again," to quote baseball great Yogi Berra.
Workforce is again the biggest challenge — by far — facing MAPP companies, according to a report the group released earlier this year.
Ninety-two percent of its companies listed workforce as one of their top challenges, well ahead of the second-ranking problem, new business development and sales growth, at 27 percent.
"MAPP was initially started because the industry had a severe shortage of skilled help," said Lindsey Hahn, one of MAPP's founders and a past president. "We're kind of back full circle to that again."
It's grown rapidly as a worry in the last five years, the group's survey indicates. In 2012, 45 percent of MAPP companies ranked it a top challenge, a sizable number but half of today's level.
In general, executives with MAPP, based in Indianapolis, said that as business has improved, finding workers has become a more acute challenge.
"We're all in a situation where we have a limited amount of skilled help and we're trying to find out where that next generation … is coming from," said Hahn, who is also an executive at Metro Plastics Technologies Inc. in Noblesville, Ind. "We've pretty well decided that we have train them ourselves."
Companies are doing more of that.
Ryan Richey, a MAPP board member and executive vice president at injection molder Precision Plastics Inc. in Columbia City, Ind., said his company is working with other manufacturers and local schools to build a job shop within schools for students to learn the basics.
"We're looking at partnering with other companies in the area to contribute assets to that, and figure out what a basic job shop would be able to give them the soft skills and some of the hard skills that companies need," he said.
Precision Plastics must sell local schools, parents and the students themselves that there are good jobs in manufacturing.
"We're educating the students and we're educating the parents, which is as important, if not more important, than educating the students, and educating the school systems as well, that there are a number of viable jobs in our community" in manufacturing, he said.
The National Association of Manufacturers in Washington estimates there are 400,000 unfilled jobs in manufacturing today, and that number could rise to 2 million by 2025 because of the gap between the higher-tech needs of factories and the skills workers have.