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Why Manufacturing Needs More Young Workers — and Vice Versa

Pia Kumar Universal Plastics | April 11, 2017

Despite stubbornly high levels of unemployment, finding skilled factory workers is a tremendous challenge. A recent report by Deloitte posits that while “the manufacturing industry continues to be widely recognized as an indicator of the health of the U.S. economy,” it does not have the requisite skills to compete effectively on a global basis.

The study found that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled despite the high unemployment rate in the United States. Manufacturers report that their biggest challenge is filling the highly skilled production jobs, which are crucial to their innovation and growth.

Why is manufacturing facing the problem of finding qualified help in a down economy? First, manufacturing has an image problem. Old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions still dominate the minds of younger candidates. The world has given celebrity status to high technology and cutting edge entrepreneurship, making traditional “old economy” industries, such as manufacturing, seem comparatively unsexy. The manufacturing companies themselves often make this worse by relying upon antiquated and ineffective recruiting and training strategies.

Universal Plastics, a 52-year-old custom thermoformer based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been attempting to resolve these problems by partnering with local career centers, schools, and government agencies to engage young people in advanced manufacturing while helping reduce the high unemployment in Western Massachusetts. (Universal Plastics is a portfolio company of Wembly Enterprises.)

In reality, manufacturing jobs today are much more high tech and appealing to a younger demographic. Workers are now required to be experts and operate the most sophisticated equipment in the world. They can cut steel with lasers, water jets, and plasma cutters and can program robots to paint, package, and palletize products. Furthermore, the rate of change and innovation in manufacturing is on par with “new economy” industries, so the fear of stagnation is also misplaced.

Universal Plastics
Joe Peters and Manny Cruz speaking at the State House in Boston

Universal employee Manny Cruz is one real-life example of someone who has benefited from these efforts. As a result of an On the Job Training Grant administered by CareerPoint, a not-for-profit helping to streamline the complex world of employment and training programs, Manny began working at Universal Plastics, where he was trained, mentored, and finally hired permanently as a 5-Axis CNC router operator — a demanding, highly specialized, and technical position that often goes unfilled, but is critical to the success of the business. Recently, Manny and Joe Peters, former CEO of Universal Plastics, were recognized by the state of Massachusetts as a success story for manufacturing training and workforce development, and spoke together at the State House in Boston about the importance of career centers in the state.

Joe, who currently serves on the board of multiple community development and employment organizations and has been honored numerous times for service work, has always believed that more is required of a businessman than just employing people. “Companies must be giving back to the communities in which they operate,” he said. “Universal has always found ways to be involved, from running a golf tournament for the local soup kitchens to sponsoring sports teams. I have found a special love for helping in workforce development. It’s obvious to me that a solid workforce is going to help create a solid economy. With the advent of new technology, the type of jobs and the skills required continue to evolve, adding new and different challenges to the equation.”

For other manufacturing companies looking to play a similar role in their community, here are two other steps Joe and Universal Plastics have taken to address this issue.

Build a pipeline for future employees early on. 

Another recent initiative led by Joe in conjunction with the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke, and Holyoke High School brings in students to the Universal Plastics factory to film a video about local advanced manufacturing. Students learn about custom thermoforming, see how the machinery works, interview employees, and then shoot the video themselves. “If we can get more kids to learn about manufacturing and just how much opportunity there is for skilled, technically advanced operators, so that they are making an informed career decision, that is a huge win for us,” said Universal Plastics President Jay Kumar. “And of course, we hope that some of those decisions lead to careers at Universal Plastics, like in the case of Manny Cruz.”

Focus on training current employees.

Universal employs a safety and training officer who coordinates all training efforts, making sure that employees are current on all of the equipment they operate and the company’s operating and safety procedures. The Regional Employment Board offers ongoing training in CNC and other advanced manufacturing during the evenings in local trade schools and the technical community college. Universal Plastics encourages its employees, through tuition reimbursements and wage incentives, to continue to better themselves and their skills by taking these classes.

Universal Plastics has created over 35 new factory jobs in the last two years. When asked about what’s next on his extensive workforce development agenda, Joe  chuckles and says, in his characteristic self-effacing manner, “Well, the ‘Manny and Joe’ roadshow continues! I guess they liked what they heard at the State House in Boston and we’ve been asked to come back and speak again by the Massachusetts Secretary of Workforce Development.” But between the lines of Joe’s light statement lies an important story, one worth being told and heard by every manufacturer across the United States, about the importance of educating, believing in, training, and developing our workforce. Manny Cruz is not just an example of how a young man can improve his future, but also of how collaboration between  manufacturers, a government training agency, and today’s youth can bridge the chasm between skills and jobs to bolster the future of American manufacturing, an outcome which benefits us all.

“Manufacturing is enjoying a renaissance, as computer technology and robotics are becoming the way of life,” says Joe. “Our hope at Universal Plastics is that we can continue to attract young people to pursue amazing careers that are challenging, rewarding, and essential in today’s evolving economy.”

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