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Skilled Professionals Fare Best In Tight Job Market

Despite downsizing in many industries, employment specialists generally agree that de-greed plastics professionals remain in high demand. Proof positive are Anu Rajan and her husband, Manan.

Both graduated late last year from the plastics engineering program of the Univ. of Massachussetts at Lowell, and both were hired by a Pennsylvania-based medical plastics manufacturer last month, Anu as a senior quality engineer and Manan as a materials engineer. Her job search lasted about one month; his took three months.

Many experienced professionals have not been as fortunate. Five years ago, most of the persons contacting John Anderson, principal of Keller, tx-based executive search firm John Anderson & Associates, had good jobs and merely wanted to see if better positions were available. “Today, all my calls are desperate pleas for help,” Anderson remarks. “It’s impossible to place them all,” he adds, because the number of available positions has plummeted 66% over the last few years.

Anderson’s firm specializes in placing executives into the compounding and colorants sectors, but interviews with other employment specialists confirm that the supply of jobs in the plastics industry has dropped while unemployment has risen.

Experienced professionals are finding positions, but the interval between jobs has lengthened. Most employment experts do not see a dramatic upturn until the U.S.-Iraq situation is resolved.

Jim Karlin, principal of Search Team-Plastics Recruiting Consultants, Sky-land, nc, says the economy started to slow before the September 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. “The aftermath has further affected all business in varying degrees, and the possible war keeps recovery slow and distant,” he notes.

Plastics is not the only manufacturing industry that has suffered, agrees Phil Tompkins, group manager at ESS, Coppell, tx, which places mid-level managers and engineers across a range of industries. He says demand remains solid for process, tooling, and maintenance engineers with good qualifications, but notes employers have become much more selective compared to the 1990s. “They are looking for specific backgrounds and are waiting until they find [the right people],” says Tompkins.

Joyce Mathey, plastics industry recruiting specialist and owner of Mathey Services, Sycamore, il, says compared to the last decade, there are fewer available positions. She also agrees that employers are much more circumspect. “It is very expensive to hire people outside of the company, so companies are being very selective and will leave a position open for months until the perfect match is found,” Mathey remarks. She does note that the current crop of job-seekers is highly skilled, qualified, and flexible.

The situation is hardly different outside the U.S. Uwe Schuhmann, plastics industry expert and a partner at executive search firm Hunting Heads, Speyer, Germany, says the pool of available positions in Germany is well smaller compared to three years ago.

Schuhmann says plastics companies are seeing booked orders trail off sharply for the third quarter of this year, so they see little need for adding employees. In a late 2002 survey conducted by German processor association GKV, in Frankfurt, respondents indicated that about 4% of jobs were cut last year, and that many firms are planning cuts again this year.

There are bright spots. Tompkins says the best opportunities are in the medical devices and building/construction markets, the former mostly for injection molding and part-design specialists, and the latter for engineers with extrusion expertise. Karlin says the job market for degreed plastics and r&d professionals remains excellent, noting that hourly-wage earners suffered the majority of the job cuts.

Says Tompkins: “The majority of candidates are casualties of restructuring, consolidation, and Nafta, as manufacturing is leaving the U.S. for Mexico and Asia. Critical-skilled candidates are reabsorbed very quickly.”

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