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Editorial: Rubber industry must change to attract talent

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The rubber industry has an image problem, and it hurts.

The business is viewed by many—particularly the young talent it desperately needs—as an old, dirty business that isn't especially exciting or lucrative. Joseph Walker, who gave the keynote address at the recent Rubber Division meeting, goes even further.

"We have an image problem because if you go into one of our shops, they are sloppy," said the Freudenberg-NOK corporate director of material development and chemical regulatory compliance, Americas, and one time Rubber Division chairman.

"When you bring customers in and try to tell them the value of the parts you produce, and you take them to the mill room or the mixing area, they see ... operators themselves wearing as much as they are putting in the rubber compound, this doesn't go well in telling everyone we're a high-tech industry."

Walker, a sharp guy who has been in the business for several decades, is describing the worst-case situation in the rubber business. The industry certainly looked like that in the past, and it's unfortunate that some operations continue to be a mess. But visit a U.S. tire plant or, for that matter, any of Freudenberg-NOK's factories, and you'll find a supermarket-clean facility, organized and efficient.

The perception, even more than the sometimes-reality, is the major problem.

Customers are more demanding than ever, and far beyond just price, when it comes to rubber products. They have plenty of options if a company's facilities aren't up to snuff.

And the qualified students of today who are needed as the industry's scientists and managers of tomorrow want a fulfilling career in a growing, modern field. Too often that's not how they see the rubber business.

Walker's right: The industry must present itself, and must be, a modern, technically advanced business. The time to start is now, and the place is your own company.