The Future of Thermoforming
by Keith Brown, President & Owner, Siena Group.
Where, oh where, has the upcoming thermoforming Talent gone?
This may seem like an odd question to ask, but this topic has come up several times in the past few weeks, and it warranted a deeper dive.
I should start at the beginning – what are we talking about anyway? The specific concern is whether there are enough people entering the thermoforming industry to replace those Boomers who are retiring. Of course, in order to do this justice, a real study would need to be performed. This isn’t that! However, the intention is to try and piece together things and see if any conclusions can be made.
Degreed Thermoforming Engineers?
The first thing we need to discuss is the institutions of higher education that are providing the necessary schooling. There are several highly reputable colleges and universities that are recognized for their plastics programs. Plastics Today highlighted 6 schools and College Factual highlighted 8 schools of top-ranked programs for Polymer and Plastics Engineering degrees – and of course there are others that aren’t listed (including Ferris State University’s Plastics Engineering Technology program, for example). I haven’t reached out and done the leg work on how many students are graduating with these degrees from these schools, where they landed their first opportunities… and, important to all of us in the thermoforming world, how many are entering companies in the thermoforming space. [This sounds like a great follow-up article for the Spring/Summer of 2024.]
The fact is that newly minted Engineers aren’t Thermoforming Engineers, Injection Molding Engineers, or any other specific type of polymer processing Engineers. As a Chemical Engineer myself, I was exposed to a number of different types of processes and chemical reactions and so much more. As an undergrad, you are a generalist – learning a little about a lot of different polymers and processes. It becomes incumbent upon companies to have a presence at those colleges and universities, both in person (when necessary), in print, and in their social media feeds and marketing efforts in order to entice graduating engineers to join their organizations.
This is a topic all to itself.
Herein lies the need for degreed engineers in the thermoforming world. The smaller the organization, the more the need to have trained Engineers who can hit the ground running when they come on board. It is very difficult to train a new Process Engineer… especially if he or she is the only one onsite! This is a tough one – recruiting and onboarding early career engineers takes a high level of commitment and a strong infrastructure to support them as they move up the learning curve.
To all those early career Engineers out there: I implore you to explore options outside of your desired locations! Be open-minded about relocating. Be willing to take on new challenges in different parts of the country. It really will only serve to provide you with unique opportunities to learn and grow in many different ways. After all, there are a lot of manufacturing plants of all shapes and sizes scattered across the country in big and very small towns.
Where are Plastics Headed?
I will be deliberately avoiding the entire conversation about ‘paper versus plastic.’ Yes, I have very strong and informed opinions about this as I’m guessing those who are reading this do as well. But, for this article, I want to focus on the industry and the market for all things thermoforming.
Depending on which resource you view, the starting point differs (some fairly dramatically – like this one). However, most reports reflect a valuation in the neighborhood of $40B in the past couple of years and forecast a CAGR of around 5% up through 2030, pushing the total market valuation to over $60B. This includes all forms and industries – from thin-gauge food packaging to heavy-gauge industrial products with a variety of different materials and substrates. The overall plastics industry is growing at a similar clip as highlighted by LinkedIn and one specifically on thermoforming as well. There is even a recent Forbes article discussing how polymers and plastics are – and have been – a solid investment, even with the beatings the industry has taken in the past decade.
It doesn’t take much math to realize that this kind of growth is huge over the next 7 years. Just for the sake of argument (and knowing this isn’t how CAGR works), I will do some quick calculations. Assume a straight-line distribution over 7 years, and you get about $2.9B/year. Plastics News lists about 200 thermoforming companies in their annual Ranking edition (which isn’t all of them). For this example, let’s assume 300 companies, which end up being just under $10M valuation growth per company per year. Obviously, that isn’t distributed evenly, but you get the idea.
That kind of uptick in demand requires people to make it happen! Think about that for a minute. With all the challenges of finding great talent in so many different roles – just in thermoforming – are we going to be able to keep up?!? The answer is yes, as organizations will most certainly figure it out… but it is still daunting to consider, especially related to talent availability!
How Should the Industry Market Itself?
I said earlier that I wasn’t going to get into this topic – but I will anyway. Having been in the plastics industry for the bulk of my career, it never crossed my mind that what I did was bad for the environment or humanity. The fact is that it wasn’t and still isn’t. Yet that is not what the constant messaging is shouting these days.
There are finally several people, coalitions, and organizations that are beginning to tackle this head-on. Plastics Technology is partnering with This Is Plastics in order to help generate momentum in this effort by providing resources and tools for those in the industry to utilize and get the correct messaging in the social media ether.
Rick Berman – yes, that Rick Berman – has jumped into the fray in the past several years. Don Loepp, an editor of Plastics News, wrote an article in November last year about why Berman was getting into the mix on this topic. Rick Berman responded in December and the resulting published article laid out his thoughts on defending the plastics industry and changing the debate. He even created the Essential Plastics Coalition in 2020 in support of this effort!
The SPE Thermoforming Annual Conference in October is around the corner (Are you going?!? I will be there!). They are talking about the “Business of Thermoforming”, and, though I’m not sure if it includes anything regarding the perception of plastics in the marketplace, it certainly should as it very much affects business.
I think we can all agree that the message needs to change when it comes to plastics. It most certainly would affect those high schoolers and freshmen and sophomore college students deciding on what degrees to pursue and the “what they want to be when they grow up” conversations!
What about business owners & SMEs?
Last week, I met with a prospective new client. In our discussion about his talent needs for a small, heavy-gauge former, I learned that he is working ahead and hiring some new talent to get them trained and up the curve in knowledge and experience. He literally has the equivalent of hundreds of years’ worth of experience retiring in the next few years! He is looking at a 20% year-over-year growth right now and is working to figure out how to make it happen. And this is for a small company! Think about the multiplicative effect for incrementally larger companies! It will take bringing on new talent who are willing, ready, and able to learn and grow in an industry they may not be overly familiar with.
On the candidate/talent side, I’m working with a 40-year vet in the industry, someone who obviously brings tremendous experience and knowledge in both heavy and thin-gauge thermoforming, and who wants to pass along his knowledge to the next generation. In a recent conversation, he was lamenting about the lack of younger Technicians, Tooling Engineers, Process Engineers, and more. “How can I share my knowledge and mentor… when there isn’t anyone there to mentor?!?” I believe that this is a question that many business leaders and technical experts out there in the thermoforming world are contemplating!
It is going to take a concerted effort to improve the overall marketing and even knowledge of the variety of opportunities that exist in the thermoforming industry, the innovations that are happening, and the chance to make an impact. Even in Siena Group’s recruiting business, when friends and colleagues ask what I do for a living, I share that Siena Group focuses wholly on recruiting thermoforming talent. The inevitable question is, “What is thermoforming?”. I proceed to share what the process is and the types of products they interact with every single day that are manufactured with this process. And, inevitably, they say, “Huh! I never knew that.”
As I reflect on how I landed my first opportunity at Kimberly-Clark when I graduated, they and many other large companies were on campus talking about their company and what they had to offer. I was very fortunate because I had options. I interviewed with 17 companies in my graduating semester. 17. I graduated in a class of 32 Chemical Engineers that year. A handful pursued postgraduate degrees in a variety of fields. Somewhere around 24 of us were looking for our first job. Those are pretty good odds.
Things have changed… but not much in my view. Colleges and universities across the country are graduating engineers who are excited to start on their career journey.
The question is, do they even know what thermoforming is?!?
In order to court all of these early career Engineers to find jobs in thermoforming, there must be a concerted effort – and dare I say a collective effort from many different companies and industry leaders – to get the message out there!
The future is bright for thermoforming, so let’s work to get that message out there for all to see!
At Siena Group, we are your Thermoforming Talent Partner! We’re here to help in any and every way possible! With more than 30 years of experience in manufacturing, hiring & recruiting talent, we bring a greater understanding of the companies we partner with and the candidates we pursue. Let’s Strengthen Your Search!
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