The Great Skills Mismatch

NEW JERSEY: Where Are The New Chemical Workers?

Lucio Siano has a problem. As CEO of the U.S. subsidiary of COIM, a $1 billion privately owned Italian maker of specialty chemicals, Siano knows that 40 to 50 percent of his 100 workers, including highly skilled chemical process operators, will hit retirement age in the next five to 10 years. These operators, working at the company’s two plants in New Jersey, south of Philadelphia, make polyester polyols in 12,000- to 100,000-pound batches for the automotive and construction industries. The work is automated but the operators still must adjust for pressure, temperature, humidity and quality of materials—all while maintaining high safety standards. “We consider it quite an art,” Siano says. “Our operators have to have a very intimate sense of what they are doing.”

To solve his problem he turned to a petrochemical industry consultant, who told him there were many other small- to medium-sized companies in the heavy industrial region that faced the same problem. So Siano created a partnership with other non-competitive companies—Johnson Matthey, Nustar Asphalt and Solvay Specialty Polymers among them—to create an educational program at nearby Gloucester County College (GCC) starting in April 2013. The companies negotiated with the college to establish the curriculum. The program requires 96 hours of evening instruction and costs a modest $2,299. The companies help subsidize the class and grants from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development also are expected to kick in. Students who complete the class are almost guaranteed jobs starting at $35,000 because of the shortage of workers in the area.

Why turn to a community college? “It was a natural choice for us,” Siano explains. “It can offer a high-level education at a modest price.” It also is better and cheaper than trying to hire people and then train them. “On-the-job training is difficult and expensive,” he adds. “From a cost point of view, this is better. From a cultural and educational point of view, we cannot do better than to put them in classes with professors who are experts in the subject.”

GCC was receptive to Siano’s efforts because it offers customized training for an estimated 10,000 students a year, but it still required the active involvement of a local CEO to make the program become a reality. “He’s the poster child for this kind of process,” says Patricia Claghorn, dean of business studies and continuing education at the college.

Why don’t more CEOs do this sort of thing? “You have to take the courage to talk to others,” Siano says. “CEOs may be reluctant to talk together because of antitrust rules. They’d rather wait to see if someone else will take the initiative. CEOs are usually very, very busy and it takes time and skills to convince other people.” But if they want the skilled workforces to sustain their businesses into the future, more CEOs may have to follow Siano’s lead.