Employment in the rubber industry appears to be at a critical juncture.
In an economy still recovering from the Great Recession, jobs in the industry are plentiful, especially for those with the appropriate credentials.
In fact, if you have education and perhaps some experience—along with intangibles such as drive, determination, flexibility and the mindset to work wherever the job might lead—you could be in store for a rewarding, long-lasting career. With Baby Boomers at or near retirement age, and numerous companies reporting that they intend to add to their work forces, the rubber industry continues to need workers.
So what's the problem?
In order to attract those qualified candidates, the industry must overcome an image problem, say experts, in which a job in rubber is viewed as less "fun" or "sexy" as in other competing sectors. Companies must invest in nurturing and educating young talent, those experts say, and take whatever steps necessary to erase the stigma and transform the industry's reputation.
Perhaps an influx of new talent will start that process.
Industry insiders say that today's job market in the rubber industry is as wide open for prospective job candidates—and as competitive for high quality talent—as it has ever been. A study presented at last fall's ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference forecasts that employment in the rubber manufacturing industry—not counting tire, tire accessories, rubberized fabric, hose and belt manufacturers—will top 60,000 this year, a slight increase from 2013. And the average salary will increase to $45,000, according to the same material.
For those with some type of engineering background, there is work available in nearly any discipline and most any geographic region you desire.
"The labor force of experienced engineers, especially with some knowledge and training in the rubber industry, is a very competitive group of people," said Lindy Bryant, corporate recruiter for Gates Corp., a global manufacturer of rubber transmission belts and fluid power products. "They simply don't (train) enough engineers to fill all the slots. That's the bottom line."
For those with less education and/or experience, there are plenty of jobs available as well, especially in the industrial distribution sector. Employers are looking to fill slots in inside or outside sales, marketing, accounting, customer service and warehousing, among others.
"Individuals who have an aptitude for technology, a desire to solve problems and enjoy working with others are needed," said Mary Jawgiel, program director for Industrial Careers Pathway, a multifaceted North American work force initiative supported by an alliance of four industrial distribution associations. "Employers are looking for those who are anxious to learn and curious about the industry to fill the need. There does not seem to be an abundance of qualified candidates for any position."
Job market on horizon
Several conclusions can be drawn about the rubber industry's current job climate, based on interviews with a wide range of industry experts, particularly those directly involved in the hiring process.
• Openings aren't related necessarily to a sudden increase in retirement from the Baby Boomer generation.
While there is no question more Baby Boomers are retiring, some companies say those from that generation continue to work not only because they enjoy it, but also because some companies don't have suitable replacements ready.
"If you stay in this business long enough, you end up being your own grandfather, because there are a lot of us that have been recycled," said Joseph Walker, corporate director of material development and chemical regulatory compliance, Americas, for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies Inc. "Companies are bought, sold, spun off. They're rationalized; they're downsized; they're upsized; they're offshored; they're reshored. And pretty soon, you've worked for a lot of different companies that you never have to leave your desk."
"A lot of people hang around at Gates," Bryant said. "They get really excited about the projects they are on and don't want to leave when the project still is in process. There's lot of internal training and opportunities for professional development here, so it's not like somebody says, "I'm 65, and I was working on something 20 years ago, so since that's no longer here, I'm going to leave.'
"Yes, people do retire. People decide it's time to buy a sailboat and take the grandkids and go someplace. That's great. But there are so many opportunities that a lot of people like to stay here long term."
• Engineers are among those needed the most.
Officials from almost every company that RPN spoke with said they not only had openings for engineers, but they also had difficulty finding quality candidates. And the competition for these candidates is extremely fierce.
Walker said there's a shortfall of 5 million engineers in the automotive support and automotive engineers market segments alone, which impacts the rubber industry.
"I have one company that is willing to pay $85,000 a year for an entry level position," said John O'Neil, president of Integrity Technical Services Inc., a recruiting agency that specializes in technology, engineering and technical personnel throughout Ohio. "Some of these companies are really desperate to find good, qualified talent."
Companies tout the benefits—financial as well as professional—to attract candidates to their team.
Denver-based Gates has more than 14,500 employees and operates manufacturing facilities in every major market. In 2012, Gates ranked 11th in RPN's annual rankings of North American rubber product sales leaders, with revenues that topped $1.3 billion in this continent alone.
Among the benefits for an engineer employed at Gates is the ability to work on a major project with a global team of other Gates' engineers.
"They get on the conference call on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, and they're hooked into our research facility in Aachen, Germany, and they're talking to some of our oil and gas specialists in Dubai, and they've got folks down in Mexico who are doing the actual production of the parts, together with the researchers here in Denver," Bryant said. "That's an opportunity to work with them, and in many cases, it's time to go over to Aachen and see how they're working there, and it's time to go over to China and take a look at something over there. So a lot of our engineers really get to do hands-on, global work, and that is an exciting career development option for them."
And, Bryant said, one other selling point is the potential for career advancement, as Gates fills about half of its positions by promoting from within.
Multiple positions available
• Engineering isn't the only discipline that is needed.
Companies that attended the job fair held during the Rubber Expo last fall were screening a variety of candidates.
"Sales, marketing, finance, human resources ... it runs the gamut," said Kelly Casanova, materials development engineer at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. "We're interested in people who are the right fit for our company. They don't have to have a Ph.D. for us to have an interest in them."
Marc Wolbert, a recruiting relationship manager for Goodyear, also said the hiring needs for rubber companies is wide ranging. "There is demand for highly specialized individuals to needing individuals for very specific needs," he said.
Most small rubber companies typically don't hire many positions over the course of a year. So while they can be selective, often they have a difficult time filling specialized positions.
"Sometimes we look for someone who is experienced," said John Barry, director of engineered products at Chem-prene Inc., which manufactures rubber coated textiles, including rubber belts, coated fabrics, diaphragms and other precision molded products at its 225,000-sq.-ft. plant in Beacon, N.Y. "Frequently though, we look to the up-and-comers, those recent graduates who we can train and develop."
As of late 2013, Barry said Chemprene had hired just one new person during the year.
"We have to be proactive," he said. "There are fewer candidates entering the rubber industry nowadays."
• If you have a background in rubber, your chances for employment rise considerably.
"Trying to find people with a rubber background is challenging," said Terri Ratliff, human resources manager at Akron Rubber Development Laboratory Inc., whose company employs around 85. "Thankfully, there's not a lot of turnover in our company."
Ratliff said her firm often seeks lab technicians.
"There's a lot of entry level positions in those departments," she said. "But if you find somebody with a rubber background, well, that brings something to the table."
Bryant said Gates finds quality, motivated students when the company reaches out to colleges for interns and other cooperatives. And she said the firm has a strong group of experienced engineers.
"The challenge," she said, "comes with finding those in-between: Finding those with some experience. ... People in that three to 10-year group (of experience) are the ones that are the more difficult to find."
Drawing candidates to rubber
c Attracting top talent to the rubber business can be challenging.
When qualified candidates have a choice of industries, rubber can be a difficult sell.
"I think there's a lot more glamour going to work for Google than going to work for a rubber company," Bryant said. "If you're a mechanical engineer, would you rather work for Apple, or would you rather work for a rubber company?"
Gates tries to overcome that stigma by educating prospective employees about the company and its significance to everyday life.
"Gates makes industrial and automotive belts and hoses. There's nothing less sexy and interesting than that—until you start talking about the things that are important to people," said Mark Tenney, director of global brand services and corporate communications at Gates.
He said he asks job candidates if they like air conditioning on a hot day, or whether they depend on their camera working in all kinds of conditions.
"Gates makes a belt that makes that possible," he said. "So when you start to dissect all the things in our lives that have meaning and are important to us that, a) we take for granted, and b) we just expect, when you dissect that and take it apart, you find Gates is at the heart of just about everything."
In fact, Gates likes to tout this line: If it moves you, there's a good chance Gates has a part in it.
"Once we start talking about this with potential employees and candidates, they think, "Really? Wow,' " Tenney said. " "The work that I'm going to do is going to affect the world in ways that are really incalculable.' If we had more engineers that we could tell the story to, I'd imagine we'd have a much easier time of recruiting them."
Walker, meanwhile, believes the rubber industry has an image problem. While he said his company, Freudenberg, spends plenty of resources creating a safe, clean manufacturing environment that supplies its workers with the proper protective equipment, he said that isn't the industry standard.
"You go into some of these jobs, and the guy has no mask on, and he's using a particulate, and he's dirty from head to toe," Walker said. "That's just not a strong sell point.
"So when you bring customers through, you have to tell them, be sure you don't hang on to the hand railings when you're going up the gantry because you'll get dirty. What's with that?"
Mining young talent
• Educational institutions and trade organizations must continue to promote the industry and expand their curriculum in order to attract young talent to fill the job openings.
Many colleges and universities offer general engineering programs, while Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.; the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; and the University of Akron are among those that offer specific programs geared toward the industry.
Still, some industry officials believe that young people need more exposure to rubber science, as early as high school. Walker, in particular, is animated about the need to engage kids as early as possible. He said institutions only give a cursory mention of rubber science and technology, while ignoring polymer science and engineering.
"When they talk rubber, (it's) natural rubber. ... They really don't teach how to design rubber or all the different kinds of rubber," Walker said. "They'll teach mechanical engineers when to use specifics and all those different grades, but they don't do the same for rubber. It's almost like in many cases, in many institutions, it's the ignored material.
"Quite frankly, I think many instructors are uncomfortable enough with their own knowledge of the material that they simply ignore talking about it."
Freudenberg-NOK decided to implement its own school curriculum, so to speak. The company recently established its Emerging Professional Program—an 18-month to two-year program in which Freudenberg pursues recently graduated engineers from universities, then trains them extensively throughout the company before assigning them to a job within the organization best suited to their talents.
Organizations such as the ACS Rubber Division spend considerable resources engaging youths in the industry. Just last fall, at the International Elastomer Conference, the group honored the University of Akron for establishing its inaugural student chapter with the Rubber Division. In addition, the division awarded more than $15,000 in scholarships.
Walker, past chairman of the Rubber Division, believes all rubber groups can do more to promote the industry, including advertising in the media to raise awareness of the industry.
"Members need to try to be involved in this level as a guest lecturer (in classrooms), if nothing else," he said. "We need to get some of these high school kids to talk to their chemistry teachers and ... maybe bring the ones that are in the AP classes to your local rubber group meetings. Let them see what it's like in the real world. Get a couple of companies to host career days so kids can see rubber being made.
"These are good ideas, but they are very, very difficult to turn into reality," Walker said. "Sometimes the schools don't want to get out of the box because there's an implied level of comfort in what they do."
The bottom line, however, is that while job opportunities abound within the rubber industry for most any qualified candidate—especially recent graduates with an engineering background—more attention still needs to be focused on recruitment.
"Many of these kids have four or five offers from different companies, just for internships or co-ops," Bryant said. "It is competitive. We definitely have to provide that growth opportunity to students. The old days of interns coming in making coffee are long gone."