By Pia Kumar, Corporate Development, Universal Plastics, Holyoke, MA

Despite historically high unemployment in the US, finding skilled factory workers is a tremendous challenge. A recent report by Deloitte Consulting LLC for the Manufacturing Institute, entitled ‘Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing’, 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 globally. Based on a survey of manufacturers, the study found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled despite the high unemployment rate in the U.S. Moreover, manufacturers report that their biggest challenge is filling those 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? Three major factors come into play. First, manufacturing has a large image problem, particularly with younger candidates. Old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions still dominate the minds of the young. Second, the world of viral information exchange has given celebrity status to high technology and cutting edge entrepreneurship, thus making traditionally ‘old economy’ industries, such as manufacturing, seem comparatively unsexy. Third, the manufacturing companies themselves seem to be replying upon antiquated recruiting and training strategies, which are no longer effective in this ever-competitive and ever-changing economic landscape.

Joe Peters, CEO of Universal Plastics, a 48 year-old custom thermoforming company based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been attempting to resolve each of these problems by partnering with local career centers, schools and government agencies to engage young people in advanced manufacturing while helping to reduce high unemployment in Western Massachusetts.

In reality, manufacturing jobs today are much more high tech and more appealing to a younger demographic than most people realize. Workers are now required to be technical experts. They must operate some of 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.

Peters, along with Universal employee Manny Cruz, has been recently recognized by the state of Massachusetts as a success story for manufacturing training and workforce development. Peters spoke in March 2014 at the State House in Boston about the importance of career centers in Massachusetts and how they help to prepare and connect qualified workers with appropriate jobs. Peters serves as Chairman of the Board at CareerPoint, which transforms the maze of complex, bureaucratic employment and training programs into one seamless service delivery system for job seeking and employer customers alike. Manny Cruz, a former CareerPoint customer who had been struggling to find employment, also spoke at the State House. As a result of an On the Job Training Grant administered by CareerPoint, Manny began working at Universal Plastics where he was trained, mentored and finally hired permanently as a 5-Axis CNC Router Operator, one of those demanding, highly specialized and technical new positions that often go unfilled but are critical to the success of the business. Today in Holyoke, there is one less unemployed young man and one more skilled American factory worker.

Says Peters, “At Universal Plastics we learned a long time ago that employee training is the only way to get your company to the top of its game. We have taken advantage of a couple of workforce training grants offered by the state to help get us operating as a lean manufacturer and certified under ISO 9000. But that isn’t enough. Western Mass, like many areas of the country, has a huge disconnect between the many jobs that are open and finding employees to fill them. This skills gap is being chipped away successfully by training initiatives funded by the state but designed and administered by our Hampden County Regional Employment Board (REB). Career Point is the one stop center that helps the REB find qualified potential trainees and introduces them to the companies that need those skills in their workforce. Advanced manufacturing represents a huge and growing segment of the job market here. As an advanced manufacturer, the majority of the equipment at Universal Plastics is computer controlled and takes skilled employees to operate.”

David M. Cruise, REB President & CEO believes “The availability of a well-trained workforce is the differentiator that will give the precision manufacturing industry the competitive advantage it needs to grow and create wealth opportunities for its employees and investors. Universal Plastics recognizes this and has committed its support for continuous improvement.”

In addition to working alongside local career placement centers and the employment board, Joe has also opened the doors to Universal Plastics and conducts ongoing tours for grammar schools, high schools and vocational schools with the goal of exposing youth to advanced manufacturing. “What is always a hit on our tours is when we give the attendees a demonstration on bending Plexiglas and then allowing them to make a picture frame to bring home. We also give them a thermoformed tray full of cookies in a container we make for one of our customers,” explains Peters.

Growing a business and helping the local community is nothing new for Joe Peters. Peters, an engineering graduate of Holyoke Community College, received the college’s ‘Alumnus of the Year’ award in 2000 and the Holyoke ‘Businessman of the Year’ award in 2012 and currently serves as a director of the Holyoke Community College Foundation. He is a former Chairman of the Board of the National Society of Plastics Engineers, Thermoforming Division. Peters also served for 5 years as Chairman of the Board of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and is currently serving as Chairman of the Board at CareerPoint Career Center, Co-Chairman of the Workforce Development Committee of the Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, and is on the Board of Holyoke’s Mayor’s Industrial Development Advisory Committee and the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“I have always felt that more is required of a businessman than just employing people. Companies must be giving back to the communities in which they operate. 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. In the past 20 years of involvement I have seen and helped with many initiatives that have put thousands of people to work in good jobs. But it never seems to end. 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.”

Another recent initiative led by Peters 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 will learn about custom thermoforming, see how the machinery works and interview employees and then shoot the video themselves. The goal of this project is, once again, to get local youth excited about local manufacturing so that they will consider coming to work at places like Universal Plastics. Says Jay Kumar, President of Universal Plastics, “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. And of course, we hope that some of those decisions lead to careers at Universal Plastics, like in the case of Manny Cruz.”

Says Roger Kipp, who spent 45 years in manufacturing, serving in ownership and executive roles covering foundry, tooling and plastics processing, “Students attending the Society of Plastics Engineers 2013 ANTEC Technical Conference Student Luncheon were informed that over the next 7-10 years, 50% of the plastics industry technical workforce will be retiring. We have an aging manufacturing workforce and plastics are not alone with this challenge. It is time manufacturers, educators and government got together and focused on relevant applied technology at all levels of education. Manufacturing leadership must reach out to create an alliance by visiting school science labs and providing exciting presentations on manufacturing as well as opening their doors to parents, teachers and students to tour today’s clean, lean, tech-driven plants. An efficient and effective future workforce begins with a shift in corporate culture focused on people. Joe Peters gets it; manufacturers must develop an alliance with education in order to develop their future. Joe takes a proactive, innovative approach to developing a skilled, enlightened manufacturing team”. Kipp currently serves as Chairman of the Boards of the Society of Plastics Engineers Foundation and MANTEC (South Central Pennsylvania Manufacturing Extension Partnership) and is on the Board of the Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, Plastics Innovation and Resource Center.

Apart from educating the youth and building a pipeline for new future employees, Universal Plastics is also actively focused on training current employees. Universal employs a safety & 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 which take place during the evenings in local trade schools and the technical community college. Universal Plastics encourages their employees through tuition reimbursements and wage incentives to continue to better themselves and their skills by taking these classes.

Universal Plastics was founded in 1966 by Joe’s father, James R Peters, and is a custom thermoformer of plastic sheet employing over 100 people. Universal is notable for manufacturing a diverse array of products from the bus stop signage in New York City, kayaks made from recycled detergent bottles, the air ducts for the cooling system on space shuttles, the bow and battery compartment of the submarine used by U. S. Navy Seals, and the plastic interior panels of many commercial airliners. Universal Plastics was sold in 2012 to Jay Kumar and continues in its present location. Joe, his brother Mike, and the entire management team has stayed on to continue to grow the business alongside Kumar. Universal has created over 35 new factory jobs in the last two years and in 2013, Kumar purchased Mayfield Plastics, a customer thermoformer based in Sutton, MA with the goal of growing the custom thermoforming business locally through the combined strength and synergies of both companies.

When asked about what’s next on his extensive workforce development agency, 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.

Says Peters, “Manufacturing is enjoying a renaissance, as computer technology and robotics are becoming the way of life. 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.”