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What young people are missing by not joining industry trade groups

I spent last weekend around some wonderful, knowledgeable plastics people—all members of the Plastics Pioneers Association. I estimate that most of us in attendance were "older"—50s, 60s and 70s—and maybe even older than that. Many of us are still working and involved with the industry on a daily basis. Others are retired, but continue to promote the plastics industry as a career path.

At dinner on Friday evening, the six of us at our table began discussing why young people do not join industry trade groups. The Society of Plastics Engineers, for example, used to be the organization to join if you were in plastics. The Arizona section (which was disbanded in the 1990s due to lack of interest) used to attract 60 to 70 people at our monthly meetings in the 1980s. Interest ran high, speakers were interesting and provided great information on materials, processing, management topics and moldmaking. By the mid-1990s, we were lucky to have a dozen people show up for a meeting, even though there were still more than 150 names on the Arizona Section's membership list.

I have to commend the SPE for the great job it does with its Student Chapters, however. There are always a fair number of students at the Thermoforming Division conference each year, and good participation in the Parts Competition. Getting them involved early in the organization is the best way to retain their membership as they move from college into the workforce.

But as I've watched the graying of SPE as well as other organizations, I began asking, as have others: "Where are the young people?"

That was the topic of discussion over dinner last Friday evening. Why don't they join? As the demographics shift, organizations of every stripe are asking the same question. Some recent studies have shown that younger adults aren't "joiners." In one blog (blog.memberclicks.com), Sarah Hill provided some perspective. She wrote:

1. No time. New graduates generally have a lot of debt and a difficult time finding a job that pays well enough to cover their expenses, which leads to . . .
2. Strapped for cash. Most organizations want a membership fee to join.
3. None of their peers are joining.
4. Their parents are still in the workforce and belong to professional organizations, which means the younger generation might not want to belong to that same organization.
5. Networking, as we knew it, has changed. Younger people connect with groups online such as LinkedIn and with a click of the mouse can be in contact with dozens of peers and business colleagues, where they can learn about new technology or even find a mentor.

Hill notes that most young people don't see belonging to a professional organization as necessary to being successful in their career.

So what are these young people who are in the plastics industry missing when they don't join an industry trade association? After much discussion over dinner, we decided that what they are really missing is the "tribal knowledge" of the older generation—the hands-on experience and lessons learned. Whether it's in a technical area, marketing and sales, or management, the older generation has a lot of knowledge and wisdom to impart. Just at our table of six, I would estimate there was a collective experience of more than 150 years.

It was noted on another website (Center for Association Leadership) that the topic of attracting younger people into associations comes up nearly every time they meet. There's always the "tech discussion," wrote one member of the site, but rarely talk about the message itself. "We tend to mostly get caught up in the communication medium, not the message itself."

So what should the message be? First and foremost, we have a lot to teach the younger generation in the plastics industry. Not all of what they need to know can be found in books. As one moldmaker told me, "there are dozens of nuances and tricks-of-the-trade involved in building a mold that we older guys have learned from years of experience, that the young guys just don't know. We can help make their job easier--we've figured out those things that they are struggling with."

Second, it's a way for them to give back. Sure, there are monetary dues to be paid yearly. But generally those are a small price to pay for the value of the information and the networking: Face-to-face is still valuable no matter what you read in the social media blogs.

Third, I find that most of us who've been in the industry for many years have something I don't see real often in younger people: A passion for plastics. It's a passion that is contagious and almost palpable at these meetings. Young people need to feel that passion for plastics that will help propel their careers into something more than just a job with a paycheck.

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