The shortage of personnel is becoming increasingly noticeable in the plastics and rubber machinery industry. "We need concerted action," says Thorsten Kühmann, managing director of the Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association in the VDMA. In the interview below conducted by the VDMA, he describes the situation and talks about possible solutions.
Mr. Kühmann, manufacturers of plastics and rubber machinery are complaining about staff shortages. Can you quantify this?
In a recent VDMA flash survey, 77 percent of companies stated that they were looking for skilled workers, with 27 percent even describing their current shortage level of skilled workers as a very serious problem. And just under a third fear that the situation will get worse in the coming months. So, the situation is increasingly coming to a head.
What are the reasons for the lack of qualified personnel?
One reason is a change in demographics. This has been envisaged for some time, but now it is having an impact. More people are retiring than young people are entering the workforce. In addition, the mechanical engineering sector has grown in recent years due to increased demand, resulting in an additional need for skilled workers. Another reason is that the plastics industry holds too little appeal for young people unfortunately. Young people often take a dim view of plastics. Apparently, we have not yet managed to make it clear that we are the industry that is now setting the course for circularity. In other words, anyone involved in the plastics industry can make an important contribution to sustainability. We are an industry that is in the midst of ecological change, and one which is in the lead in terms of digitalisation; these are two topics that appeal to young people today.
What can the plastics machinery industry do?
We need concerted action in our industry to improve our image among young people, and not just in mechanical engineering. All links in the plastics value chain need to get involved, from manufacturers to machine builders, recyclers to users. If we can show what we really stand for in this way, then we will also become interesting to young people. Up until now, companies have largely acted for themselves when it comes to their public image and promoting young talent, but I see great potential if we try to channel these efforts. The companies also see the need for action and are increasingly open to creating a common framework beyond their own initiatives. Exactly what this will look like has yet to be defined. It would be conceivable, for example, to have a joint day on which the entire plastics industry presents itself to young recruits. Something similar already exists in the USA and we can learn from it.
Can improved technology narrow the workforce gap?
In the future, for sure. We are currently working on bringing intelligence into machines, but also into entire plants and systems. We will have machines that can largely drive and even optimise themselves because they will be equipped with artificial intelligence. That is our long-term goal, and today we are still a long way from achieving it. But once we have achieved it, the skilled labour problem in the area of machine operators, for example, will ease somewhat. However, this will not decisively improve the fundamental problem of skill shortage. We don't need makeshift solutions; we need well-trained people at all levels, on the training side as well as in development or in the IT area. After all, we also have to manage the transformation of our industry into a truly circular one. We urgently need good skilled workers for all of this.
What will happen if the shortage of skilled workers is not remedied?
Then growth in our industry would become impossible. Many jobs would remain unstaffed, and orders could no longer be accepted. That would be the worst-case scenario, and it must be prevented at all costs. Fortunately, we have not yet reached that point. We are a growing industry, an industry of the future. Plastics production will increase significantly worldwide in the next few years. We still have the chance to act now, and we must do so.
At the end of October, a survey of German family businesses by the Ifo Institute revealed that a quarter intend to cut jobs because of the energy crisis. How do you assess that?
The current energy crisis is undisputed. It can therefore not be ruled out that some companies will cut staff. However, we should not deduce a long-term trend from a short-term crisis. Many companies are already making every effort to change their energy supply and are looking for alternatives to oil as well as gas. This will not happen overnight, but the process is underway. The demand for cutting-edge technology in the rubber and plastics machinery sector is certainly there with a view to the circular economy and recycling, and this is also associated with attractive jobs.
How important would an immigration law be?
Very important. Immigration of skilled workers from third countries can mitigate the shortage of skilled workers. That is why the VDMA supports every measure that facilitates the immigration of qualified workers. However, the best laws are of little use if the practical placement of skilled workers willing to emigrate to take positions within our companies – which are in urgent need of specialists – does not work. This is where temporary staffing agencies could play a crucial role, thanks to the expertise they have already demonstrated in integrating refugees into the German labour market. To this end, policymakers must tackle the necessary reform of the Skilled Workers Immigration Act.