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

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

Rubber has many uses in the modern world. We wear it, ride on it, play with it, and erase our written mistakes with it. The rubber industry manufactures more than 40,000 different products, including rubber bands, shoe soles, diving suits, and automobile tires. Rubber is used in making paint and floor tile as well as in products such as huge industrial conveyor belts or the tubing used in giving blood transfusions.

The rubber industry includes both the processing of the raw material and the manufacturing of goods. At one time, all raw rubber came from trees in the tropics,

The rubber industry produces synthetic rubber used in the manufacture of tens of thousands of different products, including automobile tires, rubber bands, and shoe soles. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

but since the 1940s most rubber has been produced in factories. This synthetic rubber makes up more than 65 percent of the rubber used in the United States. About two-thirds of the rubber used in the United States goes into the manufacture of tires and inner tubes. In 2004 the rubber product manufacturing industry employed 173,000 workers in more than a thousand manufacturing plants. More than a third of these plants were located in the Midwest.

There are several kinds of synthetic rubber, but the most widely used is styrene butadiene rubber, a general-purpose elastomer. There are also specialty elastomers designed to meet specific needs. The process used to make styrene butadiene is fairly typical of other kinds of synthetic rubber processing. Styrene butadiene rubber is made primarily of two materials: styrene and butadiene, which are both by-products of petroleum refining, but they can also be derived from coal tar or alcohol. The materials are pumped into a reactor, a huge tank that is lined with glass. In the reactor is a mixture of soapy water. The temperature of the mixture is adjusted, chemicals are added, and the ingredients are all stirred together. The result is a milky liquid (liquid latex) that is similar in form to natural rubber when it flows from trees. Reactor operators are responsible for overseeing this process.

Once rubber is in a liquid latex form, it goes to coagulation operators who control special tanks in which the rubber is coagulated. In this process, salts and acids are added to the liquid latex so that dry crumbs of rubber separate from the liquid. The crumbs are washed, dried, bundled, and shipped to another department or plant to be treated.

Both natural and synthetic rubber have to be treated before they can be made into rubber products. Treating rubber makes it more pliable—that is, softer and easier to mold. Rubber cutters operate machines that cut bales of dry rubber into small pieces. The pieces are put into huge mixing and milling machines, where mixer operators heat and mix the pieces with other materials to produce various kinds of rubber.

The rubber mixture is shaped in various ways depending on its intended use. Calender operators produce sheets of rubber on a calender, a machine that is made up of a series of rollers. Sheets of rubber are then cut into various shapes to make floor tile, gaskets, rubber sheets, or other products. Sheets of rubber are also bonded to other materials such as fabric or steel to make rubberized raincoats, hoses, reinforced tires, and so on. The rubber mixture can be molded to produce shoe soles and mattresses. Rubber can also be put through an extrusion press to produce hose, inner tubes, and latex threads. There are many other ways that rubber can be shaped.

Most rubber products are vulcanized—that is, they are heated to make the rubber stronger and more durable. Rubber goods are finished by cleaning, polishing, or painting before they are given a final inspection, packed, and shipped.

Other workers in the industry include managers, sales representatives, clerical personnel, technicians, and maintenance workers. In addition, chemists, chemical engineers, and mechanical engineers play an important role in designing and supervising the processes used to make rubber and rubber products.

Education and Training Requirements

Production workers in the rubber industry generally need a high school education, physical strength, and an aptitude for mechanical work. Most workers get their training on the job. Sometimes plants have apprenticeship programs for some skilled jobs. These programs combine formal instruction with on-the-job training. A few colleges and technical schools offer special programs designed to prepare technicians and engineers for careers in the rubber industry. Some of these are cooperative programs that combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training.

Getting the Job

The best way to get a job in the rubber industry is to apply directly to factories that make synthetic rubber or finished rubber products. Some companies place want ads in newspapers or list openings with the state employment office. They may also post openings on a sign outside the plant. Local union offices, trade journals, or your school placement office may also have information about getting a job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

There are many opportunities to move ahead for workers with skill and experience. Those who start as helpers in jobs that require few special skills can advance to jobs operating complex machinery and supervising other workers.

Employment in rubber product manufacturing is expected to decline by 23 percent, to 133,000 workers by 2014. The outlook is heavily influenced by fluctuations in automobile production levels and by competition from plastics and foreign imports. Automation and improved production methods are anticipated to limit the need for production workers; however, the demand for highly skilled workers to operate and repair machines and for technicians, engineers, and scientists should remain high.

Working Conditions

Modern rubber plants are relatively safe and comfortable despite the presence of chemicals, high temperatures, and noisy machinery. Working conditions depend on the specific job. Many workers follow a single work pattern throughout the day and are under pressure to keep up with production schedules. Generally, employees in the rubber industry work a forty-hour week. Shift work is often required. Most production workers belong to unions.

Where to Go for More Information

Rubber Manufacturers Association
1400 K St., NW, Ste. 900
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 682-4800

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

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings in the rubber industry vary according to the job, the product made, and the geographic location. Benefits often 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