Novi, Mich. — More plastics processors are turning to automation to fill open positions that get no job applicants and to contain their labor costs at a time of high inflation.
As the robot rollout continues — and even creates some new jobs — sustainability issues are requiring increased attention and innovation pressures never let up, especially to miniaturize products.
Industry executives talked about how they are facing these challenges during a panel discussion about the future of molding at the Injection Molding and Design Expo held Sept. 20-21 in Novi.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic stimulus payments given to U.S. taxpayers spurred some of the need for change on the labor front, according to Mark Gomulka, CEO of Las Vegas-based Westfall Technik Inc., a medical and packaging firm that made 18 acquisitions in 18 months in 2017-18 and has 2,000 employees worldwide.
"It was more lucrative for people to stay home than work in factories. That drove us to innovate," Gomulka said of the early part of the pandemic.
Westfall Technik invested in a tooling apprenticeship program and looks to promote from within rather than hire from the outside.
"At the same time, there's a little worry. We live in some extraordinary inflationary times," Gomulka said. "Five years ago, an average operator was making $12-$14 an hour. Right now, there's a $20-plus-an-hour rate. You can imagine the pressure it puts on us. From a direct labor perspective, automation is the key, and we're bringing out the next-level jobs that come with it."
The company's internal training is attracting candidates to two roles.
"When we grow them internally, they can actually make an incredible living being an automation technician or project engineer. Automation is a big focus of ours going forward," Gomulka said. "Turnover rates were double digits. People didn't want to come to work."
Internal training programs also are filling the talent pipeline for skilled labor at Medbio LLC, a Clinton Township, Mich., medical device manufacturer in the biotechnology space, and Champion Plastics, an Auburn Hills, Mich.-based molder for the automotive and motorcycle markets.
In addition to engineers, Medbio is looking to fill skilled technical positions that don't need a college degree. Medbio President Chuck Lee said his message to parents of young adults is to encourage alternate career paths.
"[The hires for] the skilled technical positions I'm filling are making as much as degreed engineers," Lee said.
Gomulka agreed, saying, "I have process engineers making $40-$50 an hour," he said. "A person who doesn't have a degree can make close to six figures."
Champion Plastics needs process engineers and younger people interested in quality management roles.
"We're training within for the technical support we need," said Jeff Ignatowski, president of Champion Plastics.
But that doesn't mean trained support will stick around.
"We don't expect to keep our employees for 20 years. How do we keep them five, six or seven years?" asked Lee.
Second- and third-generation employees also are fewer.
"We have sometimes three generations of toolmakers working in our shops, but it's less and less common," Gomulka said. "We offshored tooling, and fathers told sons don't go into tooling. You'll end up being a truck driver."
To retain new hires, Westfall Technik checks in with new employees every 30 and 60 days, then after they've been on the job six months and a year, mostly using software technology. The feedback has resulted in changes.
"The comments were eye-opening, which in turn made us change our strategy by listening to the employees. If you can utilize [technology], it's incredible from preventative maintenance programs to shop floor management," Gomulka said.
The executive ranks of some privately held companies also are running out of next-generation family members.
"There's no next-in-line to run the smaller companies, and it's a lot harder for them to invest in automation, robotics and even people. With consolidation, you'll see fewer bigger companies," Gomulka said.