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Debating Diversity on the Trade Show Floor

SPE will host roundtable discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion in manufacturing and the plastics industry at forthcoming Advanced Manufacturing and Plastec events. SPE CEO Patrick Farrey explains why this conversation is necessary.

Norbert Sparrow

September 24, 2021

4 Min Read
businesspeople in a footrace
Image: Friends Stock/Adobe Stock

I think it’s fair to say, simply as an observation, that women and people of color are underrepresented at plastics industry events. That’s not to say there are systemic reasons or malign intent in this underrepresentation — although some will argue that there are — but it is a fact, and the question we have to wrestle with is this: What should we do about it? The Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) is taking a bold step in getting this conversation started with roundtable discussions at upcoming Plastec and Advanced Manufacturing events organized by Informa Markets – Engineering, which also produces PlasticsToday.

Described by Informa Markets – Engineering as “an engaging mix of keynotes, panel discussions, 'TED Talk' style sessions, audience interaction, and networking opportunities," the roundtables will address how top companies are fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their organizations, the business case for DEI, how to lead by becoming a change-maker, and more. The first roundtable is scheduled for Advanced Manufacturing East, which includes several co-located shows including Plastec East and Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) in New York on Dec. 6 and 7, 2021. The conversation will continue in Anaheim, CA, at Advanced Manufacturing West in April 2022; Charlotte, NC, in June; and Minneapolis in November.

The demographics of most plastic industry events are consistent with the most recent data from the US Census Bureau and Department of Labor showing the composition of the workforce in manufacturing overall and the plastics industry specifically, Patrick Farrey, SPE CEO, told PlasticsToday. According to that data, while women make up roughly half of the total US population, they represent 29.5% of the national manufacturing workforce. It’s worth noting that they are a slightly greater percentage of the plastics products manufacturing workforce at 33.4%. The nonwhite population in the United States stands at 39.4%, but holds only 20.3% of manufacturing jobs and 19.6% of plastics manufacturing jobs. “This very fundamental data is consistent with the attendance demographics we observe at most plastics industry events,” said Farrey. “The audiences there are largely comprised of white males, with females and people of color underrepresented when compared with the overall population and the overall employment population.” Having this conversation, however, should not be misconstrued as “taking away opportunity from anyone,” stressed Farrey.

“I’m old enough to remember when affirmative action was weaponized in the workplace, taking opportunities for employment and advancement away from certain people and giving them to others just based on race,” Farrey told PlasticsToday. “This is clearly not that! SPE, and any organization appropriately committed to the tenets of DEI, share the goal of creating more opportunity for more people. We intend to encourage and empower people from underrepresented groups to seek employment opportunities in the plastics industry, and to support them so they may achieve equitable success within those careers.”

Promoting greater diversity within work environments also reaps business rewards and is an essential component for companies that want to attract younger employees to replace an aging workforce. Farrey points to “a ton of current research” showing the benefits for businesses that embrace the principles of DEI. He cites an article in the September issue of Plastics Engineering magazine, written by editor-in-chief Pat Toensmeier. He writes: “There are many (business) benefits to DEI strategies. Research indicates that businesses with a commitment to DEI achieve greater product innovation, higher market share, improved cash flow, and increased profitability than those without such programs, or which lag in their implementation….”

A commitment to DEI principles may also be a critical factor in recruiting young workers. “Anecdotally, I hear from SPE’s young professional members their desire to work for companies with a social conscience on matters like DEI and the environment. A July survey from Glassdoor reported that 76% of employees and jobseekers believe that a diverse workforce is an important factor in deciding what company to work for. Even if your company isn’t paying attention to DEI, your future workforce is,” said Farrey.

The particulars of the roundtables as well as participants is a work in progress, but Informa Markets – Engineering has announced that the DEI sessions will take place over two days at the events, with a half-day of discussions on day one followed by a reception, and a full day of presentations and lunch the second day of the event. More information will be posted on the DEI page of the SPE website as it becomes available.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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