Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

At GPS, a Positive Outlook for Plastics but Risks Remain

As a manufacturing sector, plastics has outpaced its counterparts in terms of economic growth since the 1980s. The industry looks poised to continue this trend too, as a panel of economic and plastics experts testified this morning at the Global Plastics Summit (GPS) in Chicago, hosted jointly by IHS and SPI: the Plastics Industry Trade Association.

IMG_0190However, risks remain for the plastics industry, most notably the lower levels of productivity that are restraining the pace of economic growth. “That productivity issue represents some real risks,” said David Witte, senior vice president of IHS Chemical, tying the issue to a lack of education on the part of the public regarding the number and type of careers available in the plastics and manufacturing industries. “There’s some really, really good jobs out there that are more trade related and I think we have to start focusing on that shortfall.”

SPI CEO and President Bill Carteaux agreed, noting that the long period of exceptional growth in the plastics industry that has persisted since the 1980s because there were always enough workers to fill openings and keep production high. “That growth caught up with us,” he said. “The next generation of the workforce, that issue is not going to be solved in DC, it’s going to be solved on the local level, going back in to the high schools and educating the teachers and guidance counselors to steer these young people into these great careers.”

Carteaux’s point that local activism, education and regulatory support will be key to maintaining the plastics industry’s success was echoed by the rest of the panel. On a federal level, however, the picture is a bit grimmer, but the priority for plastics is educating officials and the public. “We as an industry broadly have the task to educate people on what we do and we’ve done a lousy job,” said Kurt Barrow, vice president of oil markets and downstream at IHS Energy. “What we’re up against is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality and the environment al lobby that doesn’t understand unless it’s a solar cell on top of a car or bicycle. They’re the minority but they’re very vocal in the political realm, and our job is really to kind of get the government engaged.”

“The best thing the government can do is to stay the heck out of the way,” said panelist Nariman Behravesh, IHS chief economist, summarily. “Let me just leave it at that in the interest of time.”

Barrow warned that the sudden institution of strict regulations that affect plastics could conceivably restrict access, increase costs and, in a word, “throw growth off the rails.” SPI has called for regulatory reform as well, to create an environment in which plastics can not only maintain its current state and operate without costly, ill-advised rules that aren’t based on facts, but also grow even faster than its current rate.IMG_0173

Still, the labor shortage for manufacturers continues to be a growth-limiting restriction. “The regulation side is huge,” Carteaux said when asked for what the greatest threats to plastics were. “But I think the other big issue when you look at the investments in plastics is ‘are we going to have enough people to build it? Are we going to see the capacity to put those facilities up?’”

SPI in particular continues to work to eliminate these risks to the plastics industry with its aforementioned call for reform and its recently launched PlasticsU, a one-stop online warehouse of educational resources for companies seeking to train new and existing workers. Learn more about the manufacturing employment landscape here.

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