By Karen Hanna
Attracting and retaining workers requires sensitivity toward issues like inclusion, diversity, and sustainability that plant managers in earlier generations might have ignored, plastics industry leaders and hiring experts say.
“Diversity is something we have to do now, and the reason we have to do it is 48 percent of Gen Z self-identify as a minority. That’s half!” said Will Healy III, a marketing manager for the Americas at Balluff. “So, if we aren’t trying to find ways to attract diversity into our workforce, if we’re not trying to find ways to attract women into our workforce, we’re really going to struggle to find workers. I mean, women are probably the easiest way to fill our skills gap right now because the percentage is so low.”
In a tight labor market, prospective employees have the luxury of choice, said consultant Jorge Gomar, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry.
“A lot of them will look at the company and not only value their salary anymore or their work, they will value what does the company stand for?” Gomar said.
To Gomar, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues are abbreviations that carry as much weight in the hiring process as HR.
And they’re not just buzzwords.
“There are a lot of candidates out there who are diverse, some are women, etc. They’re going to go and look at the executive team page. They’re going to look at their executive leaders, and they’re going to see, who are your executives? Are your executives diverse? Are there women ... on your board? If the answer is yes, ‘OK. Not only are they talking about it, they care about it, therefore, I can join this company,’ ” Gomar said, in explaining how some candidates perceive the process.
Appealing to women, minorities
An industry that is struggling to attract workers should look to diversify, according to the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE). Its efforts include promoting STEM and plastics career programs to a greater number of students in minority communities; developing processes to recruit and nurture more diverse leaders and staffers; and sharing best practices with stakeholders.
“SPE is striving to create and encourage an environment in which everyone feels respected and valued, and has equal opportunities to develop, advance and be heard,” SPE CEO Patrick Farrey said.
One underrepresented group that could hold the key to unlocking the industry’s talent pipeline is women, industry stakeholders said.
When she first entered the engineering profession, Carol Barry, who’s now chair of the plastics engineering department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, was asked about her typing ability.
Now, half the faculty members in her department are women.
Barry believes the industry needs to show underrepresented populations that there is a place for them. The university’s outreach has included plastics and STEM programs in Lawrence and Lowell, two Massachusetts communities with large minority populations.
“It helps because you, if you’re showing that this is my workforce, and, if it’s diverse, then people say, ‘Oh, that’s a job I can take,’ ” Barry said.
Efforts to attract women might require companies to reconsider the work they assign, or the schedules they offer.
“To attract women and diversity … a lot of the reports that you read, women or minorities are not assigned good work, so through purposeful or subconscious bias, women and minorities complain that the work they get is less valuable. So, how do we purposely give them more valuable work to the organization? How do we provide better work-life balance?" Healy asked.
For people taking care of families and raising children, flexibility is essential, said Jack Schron, CEO and president of Jergens Inc., an Ohio company that makes workholding and lifting solutions, as well as specialty fasteners.
“We have mothers that want to come in and say, ‘Hey, I only want to give you four hours in the middle of the day.’ You want to talk about manufacturers saying they’re only going to work from 10 till 2, you would’ve thought that's crazy, but those are the hours, and so you’re going to have to be flexible,” Schron said. “They come in with technology skills that would blow you away.”
Schron believes providing a workplace that is comfortable and welcoming to everyone doesn’t just make good business sense — it’s the right thing to do.
“This is a place where we want everyone, minority, women, gay or straight, we don’t care. This is a big tent,” said Schron, who, in addition to leading Jergens, is the District 6 member of the Council of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. Every year, 3,000 people return to the county after leaving incarceration. Some people see them as troublemakers; Schron sees them as untapped potential.
Speaking in November at the Manufacturing & Technology Conference in Cleveland, he described his company’s success in reaching out to people with criminal records, as well as special-needs youths.
About 60 people who were in jail last year are now working as part of a program established by Jergens and other Cleveland-area manufacturers, Schron said. None has reoffended.
"They all recognize that today this is a workforce. They come in and they are ready to work,” he said.
In addition to the ex-offender population, Jergens also works with special-needs students, as part of a partnership with a high school.
Every day, the students report to Jergens, where they work with two teachers and Jergens’ staff to learn job skills. Currently, the company employs about a half-dozen graduates, and the high school program works to place the rest, Schron said.
“Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that with special-needs kids.’ And I’ll tell you eight years later, go pound salt. Yes, you can, because they’re only limited by your imagination, not theirs, as far as what they can do. So, you will find that that’s a group that hasn’t been utilized in most organizations, but can you imagine the societal benefit?” he said. “I know where the parents drop their kids off, they’re in tears, because they see that now their child has a future.”
To Schron's list of often-overlooked populations, Healy added immigrants and older workers; while Agri-Industrial Plastics Co. President and owner Lori Schaefer-Weaton said she gives preference to military or former military members, because of their training, discipline, problem-solving abilities and sense of teamwork.
Meanwhile, Pyramid Plastics Group COO Andrew Peterson said he would support welcoming more H-1B visa holders.
"We have a handful of foreign workers. They bring a work ethic that is unmatched and are very loyal," he said.
Reshaping the message
To appeal to more people, Barry and Gomar said the plastics industry has to work to combat negative stereotypes.
When asked what’s holding it back, Barry answered succinctly: “Bad press.”
Amid concerns about the environment and sustainability, workers want to be assured that their company is doing things right. For plastics companies, that means taking a proactive approach toward issues like recycling and the circular economy, Gomar said.
“They’ll follow the messaging of the company, and they want to work for a company that they’re proud of, and we’re seeing more and more of that with the younger generation,” he said.
Balluff, Florence, Ky., 800-543-8390, www.balluff.com
Korn Ferry, Dallas, 214-665-3018, www.kornferry.com