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Considering the expected expansion of plastics markets in the coming decades, a career as a plastics engineer is more attractive than ever.

Geoff Giordano

January 9, 2023

8 Min Read
engineer working on a computer
Image courtesy of GettyImages/gorodenkoff

Edtor's note: This is the first article in a three-part series surveying the careers landscape within the plastics industry. The following articles, focusing on equipment operators and operations personnel, will be published in the coming weeks.

The role of a plastics engineer runs the gamut from designing, developing, and testing molds and materials for various industries, ranging from consumer goods to medical products, robotics, and other technologies. Engineers also design, implement, and review procedures and equipment involved in the manufacturing process. Responsibilities can include researching automation techniques, testing systems for efficiency, and even planning factory layouts to optimize production.

As the plastics industry puts its full weight into creating sustainable solutions, engineering new resins with post-use materials and designing packaging and products for recyclability is a clear priority.

Designing parts for additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, also requires a workforce of professionals trained to think beyond the strictures of traditional processes. DfAM — design for additive manufacturing — will be a critical ability of next-generation plastics engineers and designers.

Bright future for plastics engineers

Considering the impact and expected expansion of plastics markets in the coming decades, a career as a plastics engineer is more attractive than ever. Consider these findings from the Plastics Industry Association’s “2022 Size and Impact” study:

  • Plastics manufacturing shipments grew 0.7% per year between 2011 and 2021, and 2.3% from 2020 to 2021.

  • Plastics industry shipments totaled $468 billion in 2021 — and $600 billion including suppliers’ shipments to the plastics industry

  • The plastic products portion of the plastics sector was the sixth-largest US industry in 2020, as measured by gross output

  • Plastics manufacturing employment grew 1.8% per year from 2011 to 2021, and 3.2% from 2020 to 2021. It outpaced manufacturing as a whole, which saw employment grow only 0.5% a year between 2011 and 2021, and 1.5% from 2020 to 2021.

  • When suppliers to the plastics industry are included, jobs grew to 1.5 million.

  • Ohio had the most plastics industry employment in 2021 (75,100), followed by Texas and California (73,100 each), Michigan (64,300), Illinois (52,700), Pennsylvania (52,300), Indiana (50,200), Wisconsin (44,400), North Carolina (39,000), and Georgia (32,900).

  • In Indiana, the plastics industry accounted for 16.3 of every 1,000 non-farm jobs in 2021; Wisconsin was second at 15.4.

Clearly, the growth in demand for plastic products is inspiring equal demand for engineering talent. Students in the Department of Plastics Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell “have had plenty of offers for engineering-related positions,” asserted professor and Chair Carol Barry.

So, you want to be a plastics engineer? You're probably going to need a degree — check out these schools with some of the best programs in the country: "Top US Polymer/Plastics Engineering Colleges."

 

Average compensation

According to salary figures from the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors (MAPP) for 2022 — the first year for which the organization captured compensation data for manufacturing engineers — they earned on average a maximum of $52.88 an hour to a minimum of $17, $32 an hour being the mean starting wage. These figures are for professionals with an average of six years in the plastics industry.

For design engineers, MAPP found that they earned a top average of $50 an hour in 2022, a low average of $20, and a mean average of $31.73 with an average seven years of professional experience. Since 2016, the seven-year change in design engineer salary was plus 3%, and the median salary was $72,155. Hourly wages spiked to a median of $37.50 in 2019.

Meanwhile, MBS Advisors revealed in its 2022 Plastics Salary and Trends Survey the average base salary, average bonus/incentive/commission, and average total compensation for engineers in the plastics industry in 2021. The data is shown in the table below.

Average engineering
earnings in 2021

Average base salary

Average bonus/incentive/
commission

Average total compensation

Automation engineer

$57,682

$23,868

$81,550

Industrial engineer

$96,667

$9,000

$105,667

Die designer

$62,375

$17,500

$79,875

Machine designer

$76,250

$21,250

$97,500

Manufacturing engineer

$105,474

$5,609

$111,083

Materials engineer

$234,944

$18,202

$253,146

Mold designer

$94,975

$2,738

$97,713

Packaging engineer

$80,000

$20,000

$100,000

Process engineer

$88,173

$22,396

$110,569

Product designer/ engineer

$105,724

$9,796

$115,520

R&D engineer, chemicals/resins/additives

$105,808

$24,545

$140,353

 

For engineers who advance to management roles, MBS reported the following salary data:

Average earnings in 2021

Average base salary

Average bonus/incentive/
commission

Average total compensation

Engineering director/VP

$150,143

$92,429

$242,572

Engineering manager

$110,457

$31,445

$141,902

Manufacturing engineering manager

$114,644

$13,250

$127,894

 

A world of opportunity for plastics engineers

Plastics engineers work “everywhere,” noted Joshua Rice, co-department head and faculty member at the Plastics Technology Department of the Pennsylvania College of Technology (PCOT) in Williamsport. “The company names that hire a lot of our graduates may not be the flashy names that everybody knows,” he said in a 2021 video FAQ for PCOT, “but [plastics engineers] are everywhere. If you look in your hometown or near your hometown, you can probably find at least one, if not more facilities, turning plastic materials into parts.”

PCOT has sent graduates across the United States and around the world, he added. “So the limitations of where you can work with a degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology is almost limitless,” he advised. “If there’s a part of the country you like, if there’s a part of the world you like, there’s manufacturing there. And if there’s manufacturing there, there’s plastics and polymer manufacturing there — and they all need engineers.”

About the Author(s)

Geoff Giordano

Geoff Giordano is a tech journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in all facets of publishing. He has reported extensively on the gamut of plastics manufacturing technologies and issues, including 3D printing materials and methods; injection, blow, micro and rotomolding; additives, colorants and nanomodifiers; blown and cast films; packaging; thermoforming; tooling; ancillary equipment; and the circular economy. Contact him at [email protected].

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