Recruiting Youth to Manufacturing: Addressing the Aging Workforce in Plastics Processing

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business

The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College has released a new report titled “Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Manufacturing Sector.” As the Baby Boomer generation ages out of the workforce, the manufacturing industry faces challenges beyond simply replacing those employees. The Sloan Center report points to concerns about the ability to recruit skilled workers to those positions from today’s youth, who may be looking for employment opportunities that they believe manufacturing cannot provide.

Plastics Business spoke with several sources to gain perspective on the challenges plastics processors face in influencing the youth of today, including Steve Dyer of Dickten Masch Plastics; Erin Hlavin, Meghan Leibold, and James Michalenko of Thogus Products Cos.; and Adam Kramschuster, Ph.D., Plastics Engineering program at University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Building Interest at the High School Level
Dickten Masch Plastics is located in Nashotah, Wis., with a second location in Ankeny, Iowa. The company has grown exponentially over the last two years and has had difficulty filling its open positions with qualified people who are willing to work in manufacturing. CEO Steve Dyer is a member of the Manufacturing Alliance Council for Waukesha County and his fellow manufacturing leaders struggle with the same issue. “It comes down to the perceptions that manufacturing is dead, or it’s a fall-back job, or that the job will eventually be replaced by a robot or shipped overseas,” explained Dyer. “We need to change the perception of manufacturing.”

Dyer and his fellow council members decided that the first step in convincing the area’s best and brightest to look at manufacturing as a career was to change the preconceived notions of their educators and parents. “This summer, we are taking superintendents, principals and guidance counselors on a charter bus to do a ‘parade of factories,'” enthused Dyer. “As we drive to the next facility, they’ll receive an overview of the facility and its business segment. They will take a factory tour, giving them a real sense for the excitement and vibrancy in manufacturing.” The tour also will emphasize the options available for those looking to enter manufacturing, with career choices in human resources, quality control, maintenance, engineering, and supply chain management.

In addition, Dyer and the Manufacturing Alliance Council are working with the local school systems to influence the curriculum. “We will provide a list of traits and skills that weare looking for in an entry level employee. They will take that skill set and drive it back into their curriculum,” Dyer said. “We also want to put an emphasis on the impact manufacturing has had in our state’s history and economy.”

Although the efforts of the Dyer and the Manufacturing Alliance Council are geared toward high school students, Dyer believes education could start much sooner. “If the Boy Scouts can give a merit badge for videogaming, then they can give a badge for manufacturing or lean initiatives,” he said.

At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, the Plastics Engineering program also attempts to reach out to students beginning in junior high and extending into high school. Each summer, the university hosts students in grades 8 through 11 for a week-long “pre-college,” designed to help students decide on future career options. As a part of that week, the plastics engineering department conducts presentations on plastics materials and holds demonstrations so students can better understand the true state of manufacturing today. UW-Stout’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Department also has its own recruiter, and a student chapter of SPE has been started on campus.

Recruiting at the College Level
The University of Wisconsin-Stout’s plastics engineering program began in August of 2008 in an attempt to fill a regional gap in plastics processing education. With 25 students currently enrolled in the four-year program, the university curriculum includes classes on plastics materials, materials testing and characterization, molding processes, and computer simulation.

“The biggest challenge we have,” said Adam Kramschuster, assistant professor and program director for UW-Stout’s plastics engineering program, “is getting students interested in a program called ‘plastics engineering.’ The word ‘plastics’ sounds cheap, bad for the environment, and dirty – it doesn’t sound enticing in the way that computer engineering does.” However, Kramschuster noted that once students gain a better understanding of the program, either through a campus visit or their first class, the decision to enter the program is easily made. “When students see the lab and understand what plastics truly are, it’s literally almost a 100 percent enrollment rate.”

Thanks to partners like Arburg, which donated a new all-electric 66 ton injection molding machine, and RJG and Priamus, which donated data acquisition systems and sensors, the UW-Stout program has the latest technology for its students. Local companies Donatelle Plastics and Phillips Plastics also have been generous, donating used injection molding machines, molds, and the labor necessary to install sensors in the molds. RTP and Sabic both donated materials for use in the labs, and Innovative Injection Technologies (owned by former UW-Stout graduates) has committed $15,000 each year for scholarships for plastics engineering students.

However, the equipment in the lab is no substitution for real world experience. UW-Stout’s plastics engineering program requires students to obtain a minimum of one summer internship in order to graduate. The program will need additional internship opportunities as it continues to grow so that students can receive hands-on training.

Thogus Product Cos., in Avon Lake, Ohio, has partnered with Penn State Behrend, another university offering plastics engineering education, and often hosts plastics processing interns – or co-ops – on-site. “We went to Penn State recognizing that we needed to start recruiting engineering students specific to plastics molding engineering,” explained Erin Hlavin, human resources director. “Penn State Behrend has a department-specific career fair every year, and that has helped us find people who may be a good fit for Thogus.”

James Michalenko, Thogus’ program engineering manager, was referred to Thogus through the plastics engineering program at Penn State. “Kids coming out of high school know they want to be in engineering, but generally they go into mechanical engineering. Then they see what plastics engineering has to offer – they see the technology they get to work with – and it draws them into plastics.”

At Thogus, co-ops work from 40-50 hours a week for a six-month period. They go through all of the available shifts, giving them experience in starting a shift or closing down a shift. “We want to show them our company from the bottom up, from material processing to design and development,” explained Meghan Leibold, operations manager. “We have them start with equipment cleaning when they first come in and then we teach them about the materials. Next they start learning processing, shadowing a veteran from Thogus, and finally, we assign them to a processing engineer.”

“Bringing co-ops into Thogus is going to give students the experience they need, because not every aspect of plastics engineering can be learned in school,” Michalenko said. “It gives us the opportunity to train them in the way we want them to work, and it gives them a feel for the industry in general.”

Youth in the Workforce
Recruiting youth to manufacturing is one challenge. Meeting the expectations in terms of workplace environment is another. In addition to discussing the age distribution of employees in manufacturing when compared to that in other industries and the challenges involved in replacing those older workers, The Sloan Center’s report also discusses the work arrangements that younger employees may be seeking. These include flexible work schedules, creativity within day-to-day tasks, and the ability to engage in decision-making.

Thogus, with an average employee age of 39, understands the expectations younger employees have for their work environment. In fact, the Thogus team interviewed for this article is comprised of younger employees – Hlavin is 31 and Leibold and Michalenko are both 25. “We strive to honor the work/life balance by making Thogus a destination, not just a place to work,” said Hlavin. “Our conference room has comfy chairs, a Wii gaming system and a flat screen tv that can be used by employees during downtime.” Leibold chimed in, “Thogus recognizes a quality of life. If you work hard, you can play hard. We’re willing to make manufacturing fun.”

The challenge is in conveying that new vision of manufacturing to those beginning to make career choices. Kramshuster emphasized the importance of peer-to-peer information. “If we can get the students in college to recruit the younger students back in their high schools or hometowns, that’s what builds interest. Students talking to other students will have a bigger impact. High school and college kids don’t want to hear career advice from 40- to 50-year-old manufacturing owners.”

Dyer agreed that recruiting youth requires a different perspective. “We’re going to have to get out of our ivory towers and change our own perspectives in order to bring manufacturing to a new generation,” he explained. “If they haven’t lived this – if they haven’t seen a product go from the back of a napkin to the customer’s hands – then we have to help them gain the passion for what we do.”