Science and technology are the key elements to attracting new talent to the rubber industry, according to Joseph Walker, corporate director of Material Development and Chemical Regulatory Compliance, Americas, for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies Inc.
Walker said the rubber industry's recruiting challenges, image issues and aging work force can be addressed successfully if the industry refocuses on applied chemistry to reignite interest from potential employees.
"We aren't attracting new talent because we don't sell the science and technology involved with our industry to customers or potential employees," Walker said during his keynote speech Tuesday morning during the first day of the American Chemical Society Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference, held at the I-X Center in Cleveland. "Every time we talk about the rubber industry as some kind of 'art' and fail to communicate that it is driven by applied chemistry and scientific reasoning, we are undermining our own growth and success."
Walker told the group that the U.S. views the rubber industry as art-driven and nonscientific, although engineering and manufacturing are essential components to its success.
"We are communicating that our services aren't valued, and when we communicate like this, we can't compete with other industries for new talent," said Walker, a former chairman of the Rubber Division.
According to a report from the IBISWorld Market Research called "Rubber Product Manufacturing in the U.S.: Market Research Report," the U.S. chemical industry generated 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product, or $760 billion in revenue. Of that total, the report stated, the rubber industry, which includes molded, extruded and lathe cut goods and rubber tube manufacturing, accounted for 2.4 percent, or $18 billion.
Walker said that half of the rubber corporations anticipate adding employees next year and beyond, and 53 percent say they will reinvest in their business. That has been driven by a recent surge in reindustrialization in the U.S., as some industries have reversed outsourcing and begun moving production back to the U.S.
Rubber companies will grow as they play key roles in producing rubber components that help achieve fuel economy, meet emissions standards and find technological innovations for alternate energy systems that have stringent performance standards, according to Walker.
Even with these growth opportunities, Walker cautioned that competition for new talent will be fierce.
"What we, as rubber industry professionals do every day, can't be trivialized—it can't be dumbed down," he said. "We are scientists. We must focus on innovation, advanced technology, outreach to a next generation of employees, lean manufacturing and recognition of our industry as a foundation for industrial strength in the U.S.
"We must showcase our technology, our industrial know-how and our scientific reasoning each and every time we are visited by a customer who uses our products and services," Walker said. "We can make an impact on our markets, profits and longevity by raising the level of education, recognition and appreciation for our industry and instilling this heightened awareness in our customers. We have to change the image and fight for recognition. Our survival depends upon it."