Finding Folks To Push Your Buttons

Technology may be industry's best answer to the looming shortage of labor.

At Pack Expo 2002 there was plenty of talk about new products and machinery. The next logical thing to talk about was people.

Depending on whom you ask, there is either an abundance of qualified operators or too few. While many folks at Pack Expo were cautiously optimistic about 2003, no one said he would be hiring lots of people — at least not in the foreseeable future.

Those managers haven’t been paying attention. The bulk of the baby-boom generation are in their mid- to late-50s. The wave of their retirement will pound through the economy and, suddenly, people with the right job skills will be singing about heading for Surf City. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2010 more than 82 million people in this country will be age 65 or older. It’s estimated that 76 million baby boomers will head for retirement while only 46 million of the neXt generation wait in the wings to step onto the stage. Experts who track this sort of demographic information estimate a shortfall of nearly six million workers by 2010. (The joker in the deck here is how many people put retirement plans on hold because their 401(k) programs have gone down the tubes? We don’t know.)

I asked people at Pack Expo about the employment situation. A solid number of managers mentioned improvements in technology as the way to make up for a lack of trained workers. Another group of folks predicted an increase in immigration would solve the problem, as it often has in the history of our country.

Both answers are little more than wishful thinking. Technology can do only so much. And who will service and sell the fancy new machines? For those who think immigration is the answer — well, they haven’t read the morning newspaper lately.

I think the answer, or at least a large part of it, is education. Education is needed in specific skills and in broader areas such as communication, critical thinking and computer technology.

Trade associations such as the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) and Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) have a wealth of programs to educate people. In addition to the exclusive learning experiences offered at trade shows, professional associations have programs designed to recruit and attract new talent. While you can get a full lineup of various offerings at either organization’s Web site (pmmi.org or mhia.org), let me give you a few examples.

An estimated 20 percent of packaging machines have a conveyor on either the in-flow or out-flow end. Thus, PMMI offers a self-instructional course on the principles of operation and techniques used in conveying and unscrambling. The course teaches types and uses of conveyors, accumulators and unscrambling devices, and common maintenance and repair requirements. The association also has a self-instructional course on principles of operation and techniques used in palletizing and depalletizing. PMMI has courses on risk assessment and safety standards.

MHIA has a wealth of educational opportunities. One of its more recent offerings is the value-added sales education program, done in cooperation with the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association. It’s a classic sales training course for prospective as well as current sales professionals.

The association has a catalog of industry-specific publications and education tools, ranging from equipment and applications, through general industry information. The catalog includes literature produced by its product sections, councils and affiliates, not available elsewhere.

The College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education is an independent organization that prepares information, teaching material and various events in support of material handling education and research. It’s composed of manufacturers, educators, distributors and anyone with a concern for education within this industry.

A survey by the National Association of Manufacturers indicates more than 80 percent of its member companies face a shortage of qualified workers. In the next decade this sector will need two million skilled employees. What are we going to do when the economy gets better?!

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor, [email protected]

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