Canada's plastics industry suffered employment losses during the Great Recession that cut deeply into leadership, assets, skills, and supporting infrastructure, and there's little indication they'll come back even as the industry enjoys a recovery.
This finding is just one of several conclusions of a new report that examines human resource planning issues for plastics processing companies between 2013 and 2020. Based on interviews with a wide range of plastics industry members, the report is a follow-up to earlier studies undertaken in 1996 and 2007, and was compiled by Toronto-based labor market analysts Prism Economics & Analysis Inc., and prepared for the Canadian Plastics Sector Council (CPSC).
"The recession obviously caused an enormous amount of damage to the plastics industry in Canada," Bill Empey, a managing partner with Prism, told Canadian Plastics. "But there's good news in that the industry has regained half of what it lost over the past few years, and that retrenchment seems likely to continue." As important, Empey said, a series of longstanding structural problems that pre-dated the recession are finally finding resolution. "There's a reshoring movement underway, as companies that went to Asia years ago are now finding the costs too high and contracting work back into North America," he said. "Similarly, new technologies to extract natural gas in North America will keep resin production from moving overseas and help to keep certain resin costs lower. These are remedies for problems that appeared very discouraging a few short years ago."
Another source for optimism, Empey continued, can be found in new opportunities for plastics processors in sustainable product markets. "There will continue to be a growing demand for bio-plastics, high performance composites, and additive manufacturing," he said. "The industry has managed to get back into a variety of expanding markets with sustainable, environmentally friendly products in relatively short order."
WHERE HAVE ALL THE WORKERS GONE?
But the study also pinpoints the industry's Achilles' heel: a serious shortage of skilled workers that's already hobbling the recovery of many processors, and which threatens to get worse in the years to come. "We found very strong hiring intentions among small, medium-sized, and large processing firms; two-thirds of the firms we spoke with said they would moderately or significantly increase their workforce in the near future," Empey said. "But there has been a notable decline in the proportion of key technical occupations including engineers, technicians and technologists, and designers consistent; so while the industry wants to rebuild the depleted ranks of technical leaders, it's going to be difficult to do so."
The seeds of the problem were planted when Canadian colleges began closing plastics-based training programs well before the recession hit, Empey noted. "Nothing has replaced these programs since, and the result is a lack of people with extensive technical skills and experience in plastics. It's a widening skills shortage that might seriously inhibit the recovery for certain firms." Such as? "Our research reveals that larger firms – 200 employees or more – held onto more of their skilled workforce during the recession and are now the first to hire people back," he said. "And since they have their workers back first, they seem to be in a better position to take advantage of new opportunities than small- or mid-size shops."
It might sound depressing, Empey said, but it doesn't have to be – and it doesn't mean the end is near. "One of the goals of the study – and it's the primary function of the CPSC – is to help Canada's plastics processors make human resource policy decisions," he said. "We're telling the industry that it needs to rebuild the workforce, and that the resources are going to have to come from within, since the government doesn't seem to be able to help. At the same time, given reshoring and the huge demand for sustainability in the marketplace, there’s a tremendous opportunity at hand as the economy is finding itself in a place that's well-suited to the plastics industry's needs. It's a chance that doesn't come along very often, and processors should grab at it eagerly."