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Plastics Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Plastics Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Although there are many different kinds of plastics, they are all related in their chemical structure. Because plastics are versatile materials, light in weight, and relatively strong, they are used in making kitchen utensils, automobile steering wheels, television cabinets, swimming pools, paint, buttons, fabrics, and countless other products.

In the medical field alone, many special plastic products have been developed. There are plastic patches that slowly release measured doses of medicine through the skin and indicate when all the medicine has been absorbed. Special plastic casts for broken bones allow the wearer freedom of action. The casts are light and strong and can even be worn while swimming. Another major medical advance that makes use of plastics is the development of artificial heart valves.

In 2004 the plastic products segment of the plastics industry employed more than 633,000 workers. Nearly thirty states have processing plants that produce plastic materials. The Great Lakes region is the leading producer.

The basic raw materials used to make plastic products are called resins. Resins are produced in chemical plants by combining the chemical element carbon with other elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Synthetic resins are different from any material found in nature. Chemical plants ship resins to plastics manufacturing plants in the form of a syrup, powder, or in another easy-to-use configuration.

Once the resins reach the plastics processing plants, workers add other ingredients such as dyes and fillers. Plastics can be processed in several different ways. They can be made into a foam to be used in insulation and for packaging. Foam is formed when gas bubbles become trapped in solid plastic. Some hard plastics are cast in molds much like plaster of paris. Others are machined like metals. Soft plastics can be extruded—that is, heated and forced through holes into cool water or air where they harden. This method is often used to make plastic tubing.

Molding is one of the most common methods used to form plastic products. Using this method, workers heat and soften plastic and shape it into products such as toothbrush handles, toys, and cups. The kinds of workers employed in molding provide some idea of the workers employed in the plastics industry in general. First, the resins must be prepared and mixed with other ingredients to form a powder. Drier operators, blenders, and oven tenders mix and supply the molding powder to molding machine operators, who are responsible for setting heat and pressure gauges properly and for pouring the powder into the molding machines. As the powder is heated, it turns to liquid and flows into the mold, where it is allowed to cool and harden into shape. The operators then remove the molded plastic pieces from the mold, inspect them, and place them on a conveyor belt or on a truck for transportation to the finishing room.

In the finishing room, several workers use small tools or machines to finish the plastic products. Drill press operators, for example, remove excess plastic. Grinders or filers clean up outer edges, and buffers smooth them. Plastics regrinders run machines that grind up scraps of plastic. After passing a final inspection, the plastic product is ready to be cleaned, packaged, and shipped to a wholesale or retail seller. Sometimes plastic parts are shipped to other plants, where they are assembled with other parts into finished products.

Besides molding, there are other ways to process plastic. In calendering, for example, plastic is squeezed between a series of rollers to make a sheet or film of plastic. Calender operators take care of this process. Plastic film can be used for wrapping food or as a protective cover for clothing or furniture. Sometimes products are laminated with plastic. Coaters operate machines that soak sheets of paper, fabric, or wood with liquid resin. Laminating press operators press the plastic-coated sheets in heavy machines. Several other types of production workers are also employed in the processing of plastics.

Specialists employed by the plastics industry include chemists, chemical engineers, and plastics engineers. They are important in the development of new plastics, new processing methods, and new uses for plastics. The industry also employs many other kinds of workers, including managers, clerical workers, sales representatives, technicians, and maintenance workers.

Education and Training Requirements

There are no specific education requirements for unskilled and semiskilled production jobs, although some plants prefer to hire high school graduates. Once hired, a worker can learn many of the production jobs within a few days or weeks of training. Learning to operate some of the more complex machinery such as the molding and compressing machines can take between six months and one year. Many workers find jobs in the plastics industry after getting experience in a related branch of the chemical industry.

Professional workers need more formal education. Technicians, for example, usually need two years at a college or technical school. Courses in chemistry are an important background for workers at all levels in the plastics industry. Chemists and chemical engineers can take special chemistry courses to prepare themselves for a career as a plastics engineer. Some engineers get advanced degrees.

Getting the Job

To get a job in the plastics industry, apply directly to plants that make plastics or plastic products. Many companies list openings in newspaper want ads and with the state employment office. Sometimes openings for production workers may be posted on a sign outside the plant. Professional workers may find a job through the placement office of their technical school or college.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

As they improve their skills and gain experience, production workers in the plastics industry can move into jobs operating more complex machinery. Some become supervisors or inspectors. Those who take courses at a technical school or college sometimes become technicians. Engineers and scientists in this industry sometimes move into executive positions.

Plastics continue to be used as substitutes for other materials that are heavier, more expensive, or more difficult to process. In addition, the demand for entirely new products and uses for plastics is likely to remain high. However, despite the success of the plastics industry, the job outlook in plastics is poor through 2014. While the United States has the technological lead in this industry, foreign competitors are anticipated to increase their production. Also, many production processes are highly automated, so the demand for production workers is not expected to be as great as the demand for research scientists and engineers. Recycling of plastic products is becoming a necessity. New jobs are expected to be created to meet the demand for research and development in this area.

Working Conditions

Most workers are employed in modern plants with equipment and procedures that minimize job hazards. Some departments may be hot and noisy, and certain processes cause unpleasant odors. Many plants operate around the clock and on weekends and holidays, so workers at these plants work in shifts. A forty-hour workweek is usual. Many production workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

Society of Plastics Engineers
14 Fairfield Dr.
Brookfield, CT 06804-0403
(203) 775-0471

Society of the Plastics Industry
1667 K St., NW, Ste. 1000
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 974-5200

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings depend on the job, the location, and the specific plant. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production