Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Apprentices Could Help Manufacturing‘s Skills Shortage

Much is being written lately about American manufacturing, which of course includes plastics, America’s third largest manufacturing sector. However, the analysis, opinions, and forecasts are far from unanimous. Many analysts say U.S. manufacturing is making a comeback, or is on the verge of a comeback, with reshoring of previously offshored work helping the efforts.

But you are just as likely to see or hear that the uptick in American manufacturing is a glitch, just part of a reflex-like rebound from the recession of 2008-2009, that there are serious obstacles to a major recovery, and that the U.S. is unlikely to ever recover its prominence as a maker of things.

One of the most frequently mentioned obstacles is a lack of skilled workers in the USA. Several recent studies put the number of jobs going unfilled due to employers not being able to find people with the needed skills at about half a million, and probably more. They are not talking about graduate engineers, though they too are scarce, but shop floor, hands-on machine operators, maintenance specialists, and machinists.

The ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Annual Talent Shortage Survey found 33 percent of U.S. employers have difficulty finding skilled workers, an increase from 24 percent in the 2011 survey. The Survey revealed that the 10 hardest jobs to fill are, in order of difficulty: skilled trades, engineers, IT staff, sales reps, accounting/finance staff, drivers, mechanics, nurses, machinists/machine operators, and teachers.

The so-called skills gap could either stop a manufacturing renaissance or slow it down significantly. The good news is that solutions are developing. For example, the federal government is supporting creation of centers for manufacturing excellence around the country, and plastics manufacturers and others are working with educational institutions such as community colleges to give workers the skills they need.

One solution, however, deserves more attention. “The central answer to the mismatch between jobs and employment is a 21st-century apprenticeship program,” according to a recent article in the Washington Post. The authors, Stuart E. Eizenstat, chief domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, and Robert I. Lerman, an economics professor at American University and a fellow at the Urban Institute, make a strong case for apprenticeships.

There are a number of existing manufacturing apprenticeship programs in operation, but with about half a million jobs open that can’t be filled, more are needed. The article points out that 55 to 70 percent of all young people in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland enter apprenticeships. To be sure, those countries have long traditions of guilds and craftwork and you could say apprenticeships are in their culture. But in Australia apprenticeships have tripled since 1996, and in England they have increased by a factor of 10 since 1990 to more than 500,000 participants last year.

As a plastics industry journalist in Europe, I visited numerous plastics processing facilities, and I saw apprentices at work in many of them, particularly in Germany. Those training programs are as normal and common there as they are rare and unusual in the USA. Top managers of the processing companies told me the apprentice programs are virtually always three-way partnerships among government, education, and the manufacturer — and they always spoke of the program and its results positively. I recall one manager, puzzled by my questions about the apprentice system, stopped for a moment and then told me, in a serious tone, that those youngsters were the future of his company.

My interviews were almost always at small to medium plastics processing companies, almost all plastics molders and moldmakers. The larger companies also have apprentice programs. In every case, the managers emphasized that the learning was absolutely practical, based on the specifics of processing plastics and toolmaking. They stressed how, following a brief startup period, the apprentices did real work that the company needed, not made-up training exercises. The learning provided by the educational institution likewise was driven by what the apprentices would be doing following their training. The keyword for the apprentice training is practical.

Manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of all German jobs, despite a high level of automation. Manufacturing is about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. Germany as a country is strongly focused on exports and regularly enjoys a trade surplus. By contrast, America’s large trade deficit seems to have become a permanent part of economic reports.

Making apprenticeships an effective component of U.S. manufacturing will require a cultural shift. Eizenstat and Lerman note that government in America spends more than $300 billion on colleges and universities, while its outlays for apprenticeship programs are less than $40 million. Many Americans believe that a college diploma is essential to success, that production facilities are terrible workplaces, and that a career in manufacturing lacks prestige and is not financially rewarding.

As everyone in manufacturing knows, the truth is quite the opposite. The apprentice graduates with a sense of pride and the identity that comes with joining an occupational group. And the financial considerations are very different. Unlike a full-time student, the apprentice earns money while learning and training, does not accumulate what increasingly is a heavy burden of student loan debt, has not been unemployed, and most likely will not be.

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Busting Myths About Plastics Can Save American Jobs

A planet this beautiful deserves to be treated fairly. (Photo: NASA)

A planet this beautiful deserves to be treated with great care, and fairly. (Photo: NASA)

In stark contrast with its good intentions, the annual April 22nd Earth Day celebration never fails to resurrect many of the myths about plastics. Sadly, this year again saw many of the tired old plastics myths rise like zombies and stumble, maybe not through your town, but surely through the media.

Even the real science that clearly shows these fanciful tales are nothing but myths is not enough to kill them. Science is simply and conveniently ignored.

These zombie myths are far from harmless, however. For starters, they needlessly alarm the public. That’s bad enough, but the resulting hysteria then gets twisted in a way that directly threatens American manufacturing jobs in the plastics industry. Does anyone doubt we need more good jobs, not fewer?

These persistent plastics myths spring from and are kept alive by a variety of sources. Among the loudest are:

  • Environmental activists and non-government organizations promoting their agendas,
  • Journalists that fail to do basic research and simply repeat the myths,
  • Businesses with a competing alternative material, or,
  • Retailers that give in to the outcries of alarmist special interest groups.

The links below describe some of the more commonly heard myths about plastics. Click on them to see the facts about the safe use of plastic products, facts provided by experts in government, academia and industry. 

Common Myths About Plastics

  1. Using plastic food containers or wraps in microwaves is dangerous.
  2. Freezing water in plastic bottles releases dioxins into the water.
  3. The number on the bottom of plastic cups, bottles and containers informs consumers about how to use a product or package.
  4. Plastic food wraps and packages are made with phthalates.
  5. Six-pack rings (beverage can binders) are a hazard to wildlife.

The myth mongers seem oblivious to the negative effects of their story telling, such as how they can wipe out well-paying jobs in America’s third-largest manufacturing sector—plastics. It is far more likely that they wear blinders by choice as they promote their agendas.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the zombie plastics myths abruptly dropped in their tracks like movie zombies often do. Not likely. In real life, the myth mongers work hard to keep the zombie plastic myths circulating. For many  it’s how they make their living. However, since facts are the best antidote for myths, arm yourself with the Plastics Champion described below.

______________________________________________

Have a Database of Facts About Plastics at Your Fingertips

Plastics-Champion-larger-logo-3SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, in cooperation with seven other plastics-related associations, has published an online database of factual information about plastics called the Plastics Champion, and it’s yours to download or access online at no cost. You can find it  here: www.plasticschampion.org. For the iPhone and iPad, it’s free on the Apple App Store or via iTunes. Search ‘Plastics Champion’ or use this link. An Android app is being developed, but for now the website is mobile browser friendly. With  the Plastics Champion at hand you may actually enjoy your next encounter with a plastics myth spinner.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Manipulating Dr. Seuss to Make Kids Afraid of Plastics

A new animated film based very, very loosely on the classic Dr. Seuss children’s book The Lorax will be in theaters on March 2, 2012. It’s from the makers of Despicable Me, which I enjoyed, but if you are in the plastics business I doubt you will enjoy the film version of The Lorax – unless, that is, you like being presented as a villain, a real bad guy, and an ugly person who is nasty to young kids.

The just-released promotional trailer gives you a good idea of how the film does that to you, and makes it clear why you are evil, so go ahead and watch, but I wouldn’t say enjoy.

Before you start looking for

that old copy of The Lorax that you used to read to your kids, or still do, the book does not contain any reference at all to plastic, nothing, nada, zilch, not a word. You can thank Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, the film’s creators, for making plastics and plastics industry people into mean, nasty villains. Won’t it be fun explaining this to your kids?

I try to be polite on this blog, even when people slam plastics using junk science, baseless rumors, or their personal fears based on something they heard somebody say sometime somewhere. But using Dr. Seuss to turn kids against me . . . well that’s a big click too far. Published in 1971, the original book definitely has an environmental theme, and a villain chopping down all the trees, but the villain isn’t plastics or the plastic industry.

I doubt that Dr. Seuss, bless him, would ever have created a nasty villain scaring little kids. So before I become loud and profane, note that you have three months before the film comes out; less if your kids see the trailer sooner.

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Memorial Day


SPI offers the following post by a member of our staff in observance of Memorial Day — a day set aside to honor those men and women who died in the service of their country, protecting and preserving the freedoms we enjoy.

In 1973 I was a junior at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. The Vietnam draft lottery rolled up and, like all my friends, I went to the local radio station – WHUN – to read the telex, carefully watching the scrolling birthday assignments. I did not win.  My number was pretty low. This meant that in a year or so,  I could be “in country”  — and that did not mean in the United States. 

I waited for the letter that would let me know where I should report for my preliminary physical. Some older acquaintances had gone to war and died, some were back in pieces, or perhaps worse, with post shock — what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.  Emotionally it was a time of high anxiety — something like waiting and hoping to hear that your high school girlfriend was just late and not pregnant. But worse.

And then, suddenly, it was over.  The draft was gone. Poof.  I was released.

As I finished college, (mostly) finished graduate school, found a career and a life, I put all of this behind me.  Well, not so much.

Today I work with these men who are just a little older than me.  I’ve met dozens who served “in country”  and did extraordinary and horrifying things. Despite the shattering experiences, many still walk among us. Guys named Frank, Mike, Joe and Tom — they are a bit worse for wear, but wry and real. 

They did things we cannot comprehend. War is different now: satellites, unmanned drones, robots and distance weapons quite often take the harsh immediacy provided by our eyeballs out of the equation. Not for them.  They were up close and personal. You don’t want to know.

I have tried to say this to each one of them: I am grateful. I am honored to know you and deeply thank you for your service for us all. Sometimes I tell them that I feel guilty.

Friday, February 12th, 2010

“Green Police” Capture Unfair Biases But Miss the Truth

President's Post

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a big fan of the Indianapolis Colts. But it wasn’t the New Orleans Saints victory over my hometown team in the Super Bowl that upset me the most last Sunday evening. No, what got me miffed was that preachy “Green Police” Audi commercial that I saw during the fourth quarter. (See Barry Eisenberg’s blog post for the details on the ad and why our industry was not amused.) 

A splashy ad that paints plastics with a broad “environmentally unfriendly” brush gets me riled up because it places a premium on being funny rather than true. The “Green Police” ad reinforces the same tired and, frankly, ignorant biases against plastics that my SPI team and I have been trying to educate people about since I became president of the association.  In 2008 and 2009 combined I personally gave about 50 presentations seen by approximately 10,000 people that centered on how plastics contribute to a more sustainable world. But in one fell 60-second swoop, more than 100 million people saw an ad that preyed on preconceived notions of plastics. (According to the Nielsen Co., more than 106 million people watched the Super Bowl, making it the most-watched program in U.S. television.)

But unfair bias works both ways and I believe the ad also magnified the negative perceptions people have about environmentalists being crazy extremists. The New York Times called the Audi ad a “misguided spot that put the ‘mental’ in ‘environmental.’”  Scott Cooney, author of Build a Green Small Business:  Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur, writes that the Audi ad:

…quickly turned into yet another perhaps well-intentioned ad that casts environmentalists, frankly, as wack-jobs… Perhaps the most offensive, to those of us in the sustainability movement was where an army of “Green Police,” prowling through people’s trash, finds a battery and storms the house of the offender. While I suppose the ad execs who came up with it thought they were brilliant, I would only imagine most in the sustainability movement, like me, groaned at the implication that people who care about the environment are psychotic enough to prosecute people who choose plastic at the grocery store or don’t compost their scraps.  Ugh, Middle America just took another unneeded step away from feeling that sustainability is cool, easy, and normal.

I’ve worked in the plastics industry for more than 20 years and I am so proud of the innovative contributions our industry has made to the automobile industry. That’s why Audi’s ad leaves many of us industry veterans feeling as if we’ve been slapped in the face by a loved one. ”Truth in Engineering” is the name of the advertising campaign Audi launched in 2007 and it is the tag line at the end of the “Green Police ” ad.  I wish Audi had given “Truth in Advertising” equal billing.