Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Making Sure Our Future Workforce is Ready to Do Business

By Bill Carteaux, SPI President & CEO

Today’s marketplace is increasingly complicated…. Globalization, rapid communication technology, sustainability and a torrent of economic and public policy issues combined make for a challenging road ahead. As I work to help my own kids launch their careers, I am convinced that business skills will be just as critical as science, math and engineering to gain a competitive advantage in tomorrow’s workforce. The trick, of course, is convincing them of that!

A 2007 National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) study cited recently in USA Today reveals that “about 20 percent of small to midsize manufacturers -- those with up to 2,000 workers -- cited retaining or training employees as their No. 1 concern.”

Certainly, if we hope to solve the serious shortage of skilled workers in the plastics industry, the U.S. must improve science and math education in our elementary and secondary schools, chemistry and engineering in our universities and job training programs in our workplaces. But I think our industry’s future workforce will also need to add analytical thinking, organizational change management and other strategic business skills to their knowledge base in order to successfully navigate the sea of challenges. We are going to need scientists and engineers who understand the “big picture” of a business challenge, think through a solution and communicate a strategy – all within a rapidly changing business environment.

That’s why I was pleased to read in a January 28, 2008, Washington Post article about a growing national graduate school program that is trying to instill both science and business skills in its students. Have you heard of a Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree? Apparently it is a science version of the MBA degree. According to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which has spear-headed the initiative since 2001, the PSM program “provides students with a science or math curriculum comparable to that of a traditional master’s program, augmented by coursework that develops communication and professional skills, and a working knowledge of business principles.” The PSM is touted as a “degree option for bachelor's graduates in the sciences, mathematics, or engineering who… need additional training and skills to compete in today's global market place.” Approximately 1,300 students are currently enrolled in PSM programs at more than 50 schools nationwide and the programs have already graduated 1,200 students. According to the CGS, “The demonstrated attractiveness of PSM degrees to students will help expand and diversify the science and engineering workforce.”

I certainly hope so. But our first challenge is to turn our elementary and high school kids on to science and its application to the business world. The PlastiVan™ science education program is an excellent way for our industry to do just that.

Developed by the National Plastics Center with support from the Society of Plastics Engineers and the Society of the Plastics Industry, the PlastiVan curriculum is geared to excite kids about science as well as convey that our industry offers an excellent career path where business skills are of paramount importance. Geared for students in grades 3 – 12, the program uses hands-on classroom activities to teach students about the chemistry, history, processing and sustainability issues involved with plastics. In addition (and this is a key component), representatives of sponsoring companies are allotted time during the program to talk with kids about what their company does, how its different departments function, all of the different jobs that are involved and the benefits their work brings to society.

I urge you to get your company involved as a sponsor of PlastiVan™ in your community. While the hands-on activities teach the kids about the thrill of scientific discovery, your company’s presence takes all that fun and places it in the real context of the business world. By sponsoring a PlastiVan™ visit and taking part in the presentation, your company reinforces the fact that the classroom activities have practical applications and offers a viable career path. In essence, sponsoring companies nurture the development of our industry’s future workforce. Additionally, PlastiVan™ benefits the sponsoring company by increasing the company’s visibility in the community and enhancing the public’s perception of the industry.

Our industry needs to take an active role in developing its own future workforce – one that has both an enthusiasm for science and the business sense to apply it. With a nominal $1500 sponsorship fee, companies both large and small have supported the PlastiVan™ program over the years. To sponsor a PlastiVan visit in your local community, contact Betty Coleman via email or call (781) 337-7127.

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