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At last month’s Plant Success conference in Wilmington,
Delaware, one of the main topics was talent management for manufacturing
companies -- in other words how to find, train, and keep good employees that
contribute to the bottom line. Several speakers expressed concern that recent
college graduates are simply not interested in what they see as old-school
manufacturing jobs, despite the fact that many of these jobs are anything but
old-school these days and require significant knowledge and skill.

Why should I have been surprised, then, when my recently
graduated, science major son refused to consider even applying for jobs listed
by several chemical companies? Not only did he refuse, he said his significantly
left-of-center alma mater would likely revoke his diploma if he took a job with
these companies. I trust that he jests. But then I remembered the gowned
students waiting in line at commencement last May. A faculty member was walking
the line offering students green badges to pin on their gowns indicating their commitment
to work only for “green” companies. At least three fourths of the graduates
walked off the stage with these badges. My son was not one of them, but the
prevailing attitude rubbed off on him nonetheless.

What can we do about this as an industry? What can I do
about this as a parent who would love to have a son gainfully and happily employed
in a technical discipline?

On my side, I gently pointed out that far from having caused
an oil spill or lethal gas leak, one of the chemical companies hiring actually
made chemicals used to clean up the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. You can’t get
much greener than that.  As his job and
graduate school search continues, I take every opportunity to point out that
the companies I work with do some amazingly innovative and environmentally
friendly things, like developing probiotics for animal feed that decrease the
use of antibiotics, like developing dry lubricants that can replace (think “conserve”)
water in water-intensive manufacturing processes, like developing paints that
don’t release toxic fumes.

On the industry side, the chemical industry might benefit
from the example of the high tech industry, which, despite its sexier
reputation, also has difficulty finding college graduates with the right skills.
The University of Oregon’s Master’s Industrial Internship Program is a
partnership between industry sponsors (including a couple of chemical
manufacturers) in which industry helps design the curriculum and fund the labs
in exchange for getting a steady stream of smart young interns who not only
want to work for them, but have the required skills. We need more programs like
this, and perhaps we need them at the undergraduate level --- maybe even in high
school. It is initiatives like this that have the potential to solve the talent
management problems for manufacturing industries with image problems and aging

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