Panel: Local activism is important in finding workers

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Plastics News photo by Bill Bregar To find the next generation of employees, members of a panel at the American Mold Builders conference said it's important to get involved with local middle schools, high schools and community colleges to encourage the students.

Grand Rapids, Mich. — To find the next generation of employees, members of a panel at the American Mold Builders conference said it's important to get involved with local middle schools, high schools and community colleges to encourage the students.

"I want to take the opportunity to give these youth a career and a way to better themselves," said Tim Myers, general manager of Century Die Co., a maker of blow molds in Fremont, Ohio.

Myers reflected the tone of the four people on the panel, who shared best practices in closing the skills gap at the AMBA conference Feb. 15 in Grand Rapids. The consensus: Local activism helps both the company and the young workers, and it is a way help the overall mold making industry that has provided a good living to the panel members throughout their careers.

"I feel its super important to give back to a trade that's been good to me and my family. I'm a third-generation mold maker," said Tom Barr, president of TK Mold & Engineering Inc. in Romeo, Mich.

Barr said he backed into the community college scene. TK Mold was looking to buy an EDM machine, and he took a community college class to learn more about it. TK Mold ended up helping to create a curriculum at the school. Company officials also got involved with the local high school and created an advisory board with other area mold makers and suppliers.

TK Mold brings in students once a quarter. They encourage parents to come, too. "In a lot of cases, some of them did try a university, and it didn't work out. So they're trying a second career. But a lot of them are living at home," Barr said.

The effort has worked. Barr said that 14 of TK Mold's 24 employees are aged 19 to 25. "We've kind of flipped the switch on that. And we're moving full speed ahead" with a youth movement, he said.

But that is very unusual in a tooling industry that's still struggling to attract new employees, according to the panel, which was moderated by Dianna Brodine, managing editor of The American Mold Builder magazine.

AMBA's most recent Wage and Benefits Report said 42 percent of mold-builder employees are in the 46-60 age range. As they retire, young workers are needed to take their place.

And the shortage is facing the entire plastics industry. In an earlier presentation at the conference, Laurie Harbour, president of Harbour Results Inc., said work is coming back the United States and creating even more of a demand for skilled labor. But unemployment is just 4 percent.

"My concern is how are we going to do that," she said about reshoring. "I have plastics customers that are shutting molding machines down because they can't even find temporary labor."

Another panel member, Rick Hecker, president of Eifel Mold & Engineering, said he started a job-shadowing program with the local Lincoln High School. "We had tried the want ads and headhunters, and that's very expensive," he said. The company splits up the high-schoolers into four groups, and they design a mold for a cellphone cover personalized with their name.

"We're exposing to our environment to see what we do. And most of all, they get to talk to our guys and see that they can have a good-paying career," Hecker said. Over the last four years, Eifel Mold has hired three of the young people from the job-shadowing effort, he said.

For several years, Century Die has hosted students from the seventh grade through 12th grade to become a "mold maker professional for a day" and invited their parents and teachers to come along. This can happen every day of the school year, as the company brings just two or three students at a time so they feel more comfortable, Myers said.

"We don't just show them the machining shop; we show them the other people the facility," including purchasing, accounting and shipping and receiving, Myers said. The program has grown from about 20 young people the first year to 100-120 a year now — more than 10 percent of the total graduating classes from area high schools who have done the job shadowing at Century Die, he said.

The result: Nine of Century Die's 10 current apprentices came as a result of the high school program.

The youngest panel member, Britteny Willis, is handles human resources for Paragon D&E in Grand Rapids. A few years ago when she was newly hired, they told her to set up a booth at a local career fair. It was pretty barren, Willis said, laughing. So, company officials sat down and developed a recruiting plan. "Now when we go places, we look a lot better. We have the 'wow' factor," she said.

The companies of all four panel members got grant money under the American Mold Manufacturing Advancement Fund. AMBA started the program, which handed out $90,000 worth of grants to 12 companies last year. This year, AMBA has $60,000 for the fund and will kick off the program again in March.

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