Universities respond to engineering demand
Universities with plastics engineering programs are renovating facilities, adding classes and hiring faculty to keep up with demand.
For example: The program with the most students at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, has long been digital simulation and gaming. Next year, plastics engineering will be the biggest. The program had 28 students in the 2012-2013 school year, and this year it has 86.
Two other schools are riding the same wave. The University of Massachusetts Lowell had 120 students 10 years ago, but this year it has 270 undergraduates, including 70 freshmen.
Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., has about 220 students in its four-year program. The current freshman class is 53 students, compared with 23 in 2009. Four years ago, Ferris State took steps to limit enrollment and make entrance requirements more rigorous.
About 20 percent of the graduates from these three schools land jobs at plastics machinery and equipment manufacturing companies. Others go into production-related jobs at processors.
David Kazmer, chairman of UMass Lowell’s department of plastics engineering, said graduates’ starting salaries range from about $65,000 to as high as $90,000. Most students have two or more job offers before they graduate.
Kazmer attributed the program’s growth to increased interest in manufacturing and 3-D printing related to advanced manufacturing.
Larry Miller, chairman of the department of engineering technologies at Shawnee State, put it succinctly: “Jobs, jobs and jobs. Word of mouth passes from student to student about salaries, job offers and opportunities to get internships.”
Robert Speirs, a professor and coordinator of the plastics, rubber and CAD programs at Ferris State, attributes the growth to manufacturing’s improved reputation.
“It used to be that moms and dads wanted their kids to go into clean work. Manufacturing was pooh-poohed,” he said. “Now, people are starting to recognize that manufacturing is a career and not just a dirty job.”
Two university representatives also offered another scenario: Alumni come back to campus, students see how successful they have been and want to achieve the same success.
“I have never seen the plastics industry job market this good,” said Miller, 60, who has headed the Shawnee State program for 17 years.
Ferris State had a university-wide job fair in October with 250 companies recruiting students. Speirs said at least 50 of those companies were recruiting plastics engineering students.
Machinery companies get their share of graduates. The university officials mentioned Milacron LLC, Krauss-Maffei Corp., Wittmann Battenfeld Inc., Rocheleau Tool & Die Co. Inc. and Cannon USA Inc. At those companies, new grads go into machine design, technical services and sales jobs.
Because of growth, UMass Lowell has built a new facility. Shawnee State is undergoing a $2 million facility renovation that will be ready for the 2018-2019 school year.
Growth in academic programs is good news if you need to hire a young engineer with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. But what about the thousands of unfilled jobs for machine operators and similar positions in plastics processing plants?
Because of strong demand for its bachelor’s degree, Shawnee State is retooling its two-year associate degree program.
“It will be about machine operations and maintenance and those type of things,” Miller said. “That is the No. 1 request we get from employers.”
Ron Shinn, editor