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A Day in the Life of a Plastics Manufacturer

"You'll never get rich doing this," wrote the supervisor of one injection-molding floor, "but you're sure as hell going to have fun." Satisfaction levels were high among most respondents in this industry, who cited the regular work schedule, the production of a useful (and often recyclable) product, and the camaraderie between machine operators and supervisors. Even those who supervise workers must understand the nuances of their precise machinery, so many supervisors have been known to take a shift themselves at various stages of the process. Without this fluid line between boss and employee that supports many departments through work crunches and technical crises, plastics manufacturing would be just another hard production job. The two main types of plastics manufacturing are injection molding and blow molding. Injection molding equipment is used for precision parts, such as appliance parts; blow molding equipment is used to make circular, volume-oriented items such as two-liter soda bottles and shampoo containers. The original press of a mold is critical to future replicas, so supervisors have to take exquisite care in the preparation and casting of that initial mold. Production pressures can be intense, but manufacturers are usually responsible only for their own shifts, from the melting of the powdered plastic (or pellet plastic) to the cooling and testing of the final product. Manufacturers may dash from production area to production area "putting out fires before they begin" and making certain that their shifts run smoothly. According to many respondents, the most unexpected part of being a plastics manufacturer is the socializing and friendships between bosses and employees. The production work can be difficult--working with molten plastic, handling equipment at temperatures that can reach two thousand degrees or more, testing plastic for tensile strength--and this shared stress seems to encourage mutual respect. "The workers are good people who work hard. You take care of them and they'll take care of you," said one manufacturer. Plastics manufacturing is a busy, friendly world where one's reward isn't necessarily determined by the size of one's paycheck.

Paying Your Dues

A college degree isn't required in the plastics manufacturing profession. Many manufacturing executives are chosen from manufacturing operator pools, which make long periods of job-specific education unnecessary. Many do attend college and some come into the profession with no relevant experience, but employers look for other qualities--scientific skills, leadership abilities, and manufacturing experience--from those candidates. All applicants should be familiar with math, basic science, and communication skills, and be able to take direction. Successful candidates seem to have one other quality that can't be learned: They inspire respect in the people around them.

Present and Future

Plastics are so common in contemporary life that it's hard to imagine a time when plastic products didn't exist. Yet there were none until the early 1900s, when Leo Baekeland developed a practical, synthetic plastic. The flexibility and durability of this new, lightweight (and inexpensive) product revolutionized manufacturing, packaging, bottling, storage, and transportation. Recent efforts at expanding America's recycling base have given rise to the used-plastics industry, which may still experience financial uncertainty, but which has reduced landfill waste by over 5 percent in the last seven years. Less-skilled plastics manufacturing jobs are slowly becoming automated, and new entrants to the field must meet increased computer and technical skill requirements. The impact of the trend toward automation is still mild in this industry, but in time it could change the entire feel of the plastics industry. So much of the operation of the plastics industry is founded on and guided by the personal loyalties and associations that develop among the employees that automation of the work processes could have a seriously negative effect on the productivity of the remaining workers. Automation, such as through computer numerically controlled (CNC) production, is proceeding at a fairly slow pace in this industry, as employers recognize the value of employee relationships. Nevertheless, eventual automation is inevitable because of its promise of still greater efficiency.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many aspiring plastics manufacturers are line technicians, machine operators, or assistants, learning how to be good injection molders or extruder operators. People new to the profession are surprised at how helpful their fellow employees are in this early stage of their careers. Hours are regular and salaries are low, but satisfaction is high. Many in these beginning jobs learn the front-line lessons that will make them effective managers.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year plastics executives have been pulled from the line and put in charge of one area of operation, such as plastic bead molding, or casting, striping, or shaping. Although initially this switch from operator to supervisor is unsettling, many quickly see the advantages--particularly in the 60 percent decrease in the likelihood of injury. Hours can increase as administrative duties are added to production duties. Salaries rise and satisfaction is high.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year veterans become involved in such areas as inventory control, client contact, and long-term planning, but expect input to be limited for another five years or so. Many are encouraged to take additional courses in finance or to try their hand at sales (because they are intimately familiar with the production process). Many turn down these options and remain manufacturing supervisors, keeping close to the people they care about and doing the job they love.