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Now Hiring: Plastics Equipment Operators and Maintenance Technicians

Image courtesy of GettyImages/gorodenkoff manufacturing worker
Demand for skilled labor is surging, and salaries are a reflection of that. Maintenance specialists, for example, earned just under $100K, on average, in 2022, according to a plastics salary and trends survey.

Increased use of “smart” manufacturing machinery — connected equipment that produces reams of actionable operational data — and automation in general mean that a new generation of plastics machinery operators is desperately needed.

While in some instances manufacturers might require fewer operators to run more machines, there will always be a need for savvy, dedicated operators who can monitor multiple tasks, troubleshoot production issues, and be comfortable in the increasingly digitized world of modern manufacturing.

Roles of the plastics equipment operator can run the gamut from assisting in material and color changes on molding and extrusion lines to participating in technical support and QA validation.

Machine operators can monitor not just individual machines but an entire production line, removing components or products and performing other tasks to ensure product quality, including trimming, measuring, burr removal, and more.

According to salary figures from the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors (MAPP), plastics machine operators in 2022 earned a top average of $30 an hour ($22 an hour to start) to a minimum average of $10 an hour ($8 to start). Operator salaries have surged 37% over the past 10 years, averaging $32,448.

Salaries run a bit higher for certified machine operators, MAPP found. Certified operators run a machine or set of machines to a specific cycle time while maintaining quality of parts, components, and products per customer specifications. These highly trained operators are also responsible for scrap, machine efficiency, work area safety, product packaging, and correct product labeling while also monitoring gauges, pressures, and temperatures, and adjusting control settings. For these skills, certified machine operators were paid a maximum hourly average of $35 in 2022 to a minimum average of $8.91. Their wages have grown 33% in the past 10 years, MAPP reported, with a median salary of $36,046.

Maintenance being a vital aspect of keeping equipment running, technicians in this aspect of machine operation can earn the following, per the 2022 Plastics Salary and Trends Survey by MBS Advisors:

Job title

Average base salary

Average bonus

Average total earnings

Maintenance specialist, process machinery

$82,875

$16,250

$99,125

Maintenance manager

$94,514

$5,986

$100,500

Mold technician

$74,333

$4,167

$78,500

CNC machinist

$66, 316

$22,816

$89,132

Considering the impact and expected expansion of plastics markets in the coming decades, a career as a plastics equipment operator 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% a 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 plastics products portion of the plastics industry 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, outpacing manufacturing as a whole, which saw employment grow only 0.5% a year between 2011 and 2021, and only 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.

Such is demand for skilled plastics equipment operators that more companies are rapidly refining the way they onboard and retain essential personnel, according to Michelle Paulson, Director of Marketing Communications for Paulson Training Programs.

To address persistent and dire workforce shortages, plastics manufacturers are taking their onboarding processes for machine operators “much more seriously,” Paulson explained. “They are getting more sophisticated, and they are finding that that is really working. It’s not just training, it’s everything,” including getting to know the company culture, she added. “It’s not just, ‘Here are your ID tags, now get on the plant floor and do your thing.’ They’re really trying to make the new hires part of their team.”

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