Nowadays there is a lot of rhetoric about the lack of enough skilled employees to sustain the recovery from the last recession. Some analysts claim there are over 600,000 available manufacturing jobs searching for people with adequate skills. Looking back, the plastics industry has always grown faster than the supply of technically competent employees. The only exceptions were the recession years of 1958-59, 1974-75, 1980-81, and 1989-91. A year or so following each of these recessions there was another shortage of skilled employees.
The country is just now recovering from an abnormally long recession. Once again there are not enough skilled employees to support the growing economy. This is no surprise. The plastics industry didn’t have enough competent employees at the start of the recession, and they have even fewer as the economy recovers. But why?
Because the plastics processors, material manufacturers, moldmakers and others have been negligent in not assuring an adequate supply of employees to sustain the growth of their companies. Over the years there have been many good trade schools, universities, colleges’ out-reach programs, and adult evening courses that trained people for jobs in the plastics industry. The best of these teaching institutions did a good job of servicing full-time students and local residents. However, the U.S. is a large country. There never were enough schools to take care of the whole country. Regrettably the plastics industry has always abandoned these programs and students at the first indication of a slowing of the economy.
School administrators, who are always short of money and space, see the declining enrollment and respond accordingly. They lay off the teacher(s), sell the equipment, and devote the space to teaching more sustainable subjects such as court reporting, computer science, nursing, or international marketing. There are exceptions. Some very good plastics technology teaching institutions have survived the recessions, but with reduced enrollment.
The teachers, machinery, and space are gone
At the end of a recession the industry returns to the same schools for help. The schools that stopped teaching plastics technology are understandably reluctant to restart a program for any industry that failed to support a similar program during the last decline in the economy. To make matters worse the instructors, machinery, and floor space are gone and difficult to replace. Those institutions that continued teaching through the recession now enjoy increased enrollment. However, it takes them 18 or 24 or more months to teach a new crop of students. The end result is that the U.S. does not have enough teaching institutions to produce the number of employees needed to support the growth of the plastics industry. This is the situation in which the industry finds itself today. This repeated failure to support the institutions that are teaching the next generation of employees is an example of gross mismanagement.
Without enough schools the next generation of employees has been forced to learn by the slow process of trial and error in on-the-job training programs. Regrettably even this trial and error method of training new employees is now under attack.
Maximizing shareholder equity
In the 1990s, one management flavor-of-the-month was maximizing shareholder equity. Theoretically this approach would keep corporate management’s attention focused on increasing profits. The man-in-the-street immediately recognized that if the stockowners received larger dividends each year they would be happy and wouldn’t object to CEOs receiving large salaries, generous stock options, and lavish fringe benefits. This is exactly what happened. This practice worked well for awhile, but it has had some unpleasant side effects.
In an attempt to produce ever-increasing profits, corporate America initiated a high-pressure, across-the-board cost-cutting policy. A lot of manufacturing jobs were sent offshore to what buyers thought were low-cost suppliers. In many instances this was done without taking the time to learn what the total cost would be.
Many large corporations canceled their employees’ plastics magazine subscriptions. Others stopped paying employees’ membership dues to technical societies such as the Society of Plastics Engineers or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Industrial Design Society of America. The corporations paid a high price for these cost reductions. They deprived their employees of the valuable learning opportunities provided by the technical societies. The loss of the trade magazines took away a constant source of technical articles and announcements of new materials and technology.
If this wasn’t bad enough, management also severely restricted conference registrations and travel budgets. Technical society memberships nosedived. Conference and seminar attendance declined and then stopped. Visits to supplier’s plants became infrequent or were replaced with teleconferences. These teleconferences appeared to reduce cost. However, they deprived employees of the opportunity to learn from their suppliers who are all experts in their own fields.
The loss of the traditional ways of educating employees is a handicap that the modern plastics industry has not yet overcome. But why not? Because the majority of white-color workers in the plastics industry were not taught plastics technology at the university. Very few blue-color workers received any training in plastics before assuming their present jobs. Without enough schools in strategic locations all of these people have to learn plastics technology from technical societies, conferences, suppliers, seminars, and trade magazines. Without their company’s financial support most employees will not take advantage of these opportunities to learn plastics technology
Corporate America and the plastics industry are guilty of gross mismanagement in creating this undesirable lack of educational opportunities. Corporate America also has the ability to reverse this trend. A failure to acknowledge and correct this situation only compounds the problem and deprives the industry of the employees needed today and in the future.
A growing industry needs employees
Fortunately all is not doom and gloom. In several locations across the U.S. responsible plastics industry activists, including competitors, are cooperating in the development of plastics learning opportunities. In most instances these consortiums partner with a local teaching institution. The school provides the location and the actual instructor. The consortium consults on the curriculum, provides financial support for equipping the facility, and pledges to stand by the school during future recessions.
Many of the plastics magazines have started online newsletters. The industry still has a lot of excellent books covering all aspects of plastics technology. It is, however, difficult to motivate employees to take the time to learn by reading on their own. The exception is when something goes wrong and everybody is looking for quick fixes.
Single- and multiple-day seminars have always been a quick fix for employees who did not study plastics at the university. Regrettably most of these seminars were discontinued in the last recession. As the economy recovers, some seminars are being reintroduced. Most seminars are excellent, concentrated learning opportunities. It is, however, difficult to convince management to pay for a seminar and give the employee time off to attend.
Webinars are now being substituted for seminars. Management approves of webinars as they are low cost or free, there are no travel expenses, and the employee is off of the job for only an hour or so. Webinars are certainly better than nothing, but they are no substitute for single- or multiple-day seminars.
Online learning, which is the equivalent of the old correspondence courses, is becoming a reality. This is a technology that the plastics industry should embrace and promote. There is no better way to educate employees who live and work in isolated locations.
Another positive sign is that some of the moldmaking and plastics technology trade schools are once again in operation and enjoying good enrollments.
Now is the time for responsible members of the plastics industry to recognize that it is poor business to continue to ignore the educational needs of their next generation of employees. The economy is recovering. It is no longer possible to steal enough skilled workers from the competition. If you can’t provide actual training you must at least financially support the institutions that can. The plastics industry is going to be around for a long time. It is going to grow. It will need a steady supply of technically competent people to support that growth in the increasingly competitive global economy.