Fort Worth, Texas — “Hunting Unicorns” was the title of a panel discussion on finding young employees that kicked off the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Conference.
That says it all.
Just like the rest of the manufacturing sector, thermoformers are scrambling to attract young people, in the face of low unemployment and the lingering perception by many that manufacturing is not a good career choice.
Thermoforming company officials are saying the situation is getting even more difficult, said Dan Sproles, who runs Sproles Business Consulting LLC in South Bend, Ind.
“Probably the last year or so, [they are saying], ‘I just need a warm body,'” he said.
Monica Jacobs, an executive recruiter for rigid plastic packaging with the Cincinnati-based executive search firm KLA Industries Inc., said low unemployment means prospective employees are getting multiple job offers.
“Companies really have to sell themselves,” she said. “You want every candidate to leave that interview wanting to come work for you. Of course, you make the final decision.”
Jacobs said investing in automation like can pay back two ways: by replacing employees in positions prone to high turnover, like pickers and stackers, and by attracting young people to thermoforming.
“It gives you a way to embrace the next generation,” she said.
Sproles said the basic interview process has to change when trying to hire young people. Companies are not going to find candidates experienced in thermoforming, so pay attention to body language. Many of them have not worked in a factory before, so it can be intimidating.
That makes the onboarding process very important.
“Once you get to work, you have to train, you have to explain, you have to help them,” Sproles said. Thank them. Know their names. Show some appreciation.
Sharon Haverlak, vice president of people and culture of sheet extruder Sekisui SPI in Bloomsburg, Pa., agreed that introducing a new younger employee to a manufacturing company takes attention to detail.
“Onboarding is about consistency” to explain the company's vision and culture, Haverlak said. “You have a much better chance of retaining an employee if you do a good, thorough job of onboarding.”
Haverlak said when Sekisui hires someone off the street, the company takes two weeks to train them in the “hard skills” of the factory job. “When we're looking for our shop floor, we want to find people with good soft skills like communication and teamwork,” she said.
Bloomberg is near the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., and its thermoforming center. The Sekisui SPI sponsors scholarships and sends employees for training, she said.
The panel was moderated by Conor Carlin, sales and marketing manager at Attleboro, Mass.-based plug-assist maker CMT Materials Inc. There are unforeseen issues, he said. One is wage stratification. Say a company hires young programmers and pays them well. Older machine operators could resent that.
“You can end up driving a wedge in the wage classes,” he said.
Haverlak encouraged thermoformers to sponsor the Plastivan to visit local schools. Bringing high school teachers and guidance counselors into a factory is also a good idea.
“The conversations are very important” she said.
Sekisui also brings retirees to come back and mentor younger employees.
Two Texas school groups toured the trade show floor at the Thermoforming Conference.
Nathan Troutman, senior manufacturing engineer at Precision Formed Plastics Inc. in Grand Prairie Texas, said sponsoring field trips and local STEM education programs is a good idea.
Sproles said a key is to get the attention and interest of young workers, then do mentoring.
“The biggest problem is work ethic,” Sproles said. “It's hard to find people with good work ethic.”