The Coatings Industry: Our Next Generation
Posted on Thursday, January 7, 2021
By Dr. Victoria J. Gelling
One only has to sit in the back of any FABTECH crowd or conference seminar room to view the sea of aged heads. Ours seems to be an aging community of engineers, chemists, sales, marketing, and coating specialists.
Imagine my surprise when reviewing recent (2019) data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Table 1), that the median age of those in metal products manufacturing (specifically coating, engraving, heat treating, and allied activities) to be only 44.4 years. The same report highlights within the chemicals manufacturing industry (specifically paint, coating, and adhesive manufacturing) the median age is just ever so slightly higher at 44.6 years.1 But the median age does not tell the entire story.
In the next 10 years, our industry will lose a valuable asset as 30% of our workforce will be eligible for retirement; by 2030 all baby boomers will be 65 years or older, according to the United States Census.2 These retirements will cause a large turnover in our workforce, but more importantly, a loss of knowledge and experience. The impact of this is significant throughout our industry and society; according to the AARP, by 2030 adults aged 65+ will outnumber those below 18 years old in the United States.3 The Bureau statistics also highlight that our current workforce in the groups aged 35-44 and 45-54 are each smaller than the 55-65 year group, further complicating the impending baby boomer exit. The result is that the median age in our industry benefits from a large workforce population within the 25-34 age category.
Based on the above figures, it is necessary for those of us in coatings to focus on ensuring there is an influx into our industry of new talent and new ideas. Fortunately, we are not without resources and allies. This influx of new talent can occur through multiple ‘entry points’ that will result in employees with long and successful careers in coatings. While there are many schools providing training in related technologies (such as polymers, material science, corrosion, and nanotechnology), for our purposes today, the programs shown in the side bar are those that specifically have offerings in coatings. There are also a number of trade schools that focus on hands-on painting and coatings skills and knowledge.4 At the university level, there are coatings- focused departments that have many opportunities for coatings education at the undergraduate, graduate, and industrial short course level.5 Beyond the formal training listed, there are various industrial opportunities available. Most coatings manufacturers, including my company Sherwin-Williams, offer both online training and information as well as internship and co-op placements for interested and qualified students. All one needs to do to find these opportunities is a quick internet search.
So where do we, PCI, fit in? Professional organizations play a significant role in ensuring that there are enough qualified people interested in joining our industry to account for future retirements, workforce attrition, and industry growth. We can do this through supporting scholarships, reaching out to trade schools and universities, and providing growth and learning opportunities for those who have already entered our industry so they choose to stay in for the ‘long haul.’ We also need to ‘sell’ our industry to a generation that is fundamentally different than the generation that will be riding off into the retirement sunset. Generation Z (Gen Z, the digital generation) is the generation entering the training and education pipeline for our industry. This generation encompasses birth years 1997 to today—the end year of the generation is still under debate. Gen Z is the largest generation since the baby boomers and, according to Laura Gayle of FEI Daily, we as an industry need to understand what makes this generation ‘tick’.6 Gen Z, like the millennials before them, wants flexible and modern workplaces with up-to-date technology. They tend to be more competitive and entrepreneurial in nature, according to Pew Social Trends.7 In addition to generational wants and behaviors being different, the demographics are also changing significantly. Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date with 14% Black or African American, 25% Hispanic, and 52% white demographics.7 Gen Z are also on track to be the generation with the highest level of education, with 57% of 18- to 21-year-olds already enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges.7 At this point, it is too early to deduce how COVID-19 will impact this generation both in education and employment interests.
Why are demographics important? Our current demographics in the coatings industry (Table 2) tend to be skewed toward white and male, many without college degrees, as approximately 26% of baby boomers had degrees beyond high school by 1985.8 Again, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides us important detailed information about our industry. In 2019, 78% of our workforce was male and 85% was white.9 In order to fill the pipeline with workers, we will have to update our recruiting process and efforts, or we will fail. We will actively need to recruit employees from current industry under-represented groups, or we will struggle to fill positions. We will need to realize that there may be such a demand for those with trade school training—since so many are going into four-year universities—that we will need to compete to ‘win’ the opportunity to be their employer.
This shift isn’t the first one that I’ve witnessed in my almost 25-year career in coatings. Prior to joining industry, I was an associate professor at the Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials at North Dakota State University. During my time there, I witnessed a rapid shift in the student body interested in coatings. From the start of the department in 1905 until the late 1990s, almost all of the students interested in paint chemistry/ polymers/coatings were B.S. Chemistry students. Seemingly overnight, this student population was no longer interested in coatings as a possible career. When I talked to the chemistry majors, I found out that most, if not all, from current industry under-represented groups, or we will struggle to fill positions. We will need to realize that there may be such a demand for those with trade school training—since so many are going into four-year universities—that we will need to compete to ‘win’ the opportunity to be their employer.
This shift isn’t the first one that I’ve witnessed in my almost 25-year career in coatings. Prior to joining industry, I was an associate professor at the Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials at North Dakota State University. During my time there, I witnessed a rapid shift in the student body interested in coatings. From the start of the department in 1905 until the late 1990s, almost all of the students interested were interested only in medical, dental, or pharmaceuticals; manufacturing did not have any allure to these students. Outreach and scholarships were unable to sway their minds. So, we had to quickly switch our recruiting efforts to pulling students into our program from the engineering departments. This, fortunately, was successful. But it took time, resources, and funding.
I am fortunate enough to work with a talented young chemist who chose a coatings career, Delenn. She is on the cusp between Generation Z and millennial. When I spoke with her about this article, she expressed the daunting financial situation put before these young professionals. They are a generation starting out life with significant debt; in 2020, two out of three graduating students had school loans, with an average debt balance of $29,900.10 This debt load has been increasing steadily compared to prior generations. In 1993, for example, less than half of the students graduated with debt at an average debt load of $9,300. Even with adjusting for inflation, there is a significant increase in debt for our young colleagues. To tackle this debt load, many feel they need to look at the perceived high paying segments such as medical, dental, and pharmaceuticals.
Delenn mentioned that we as an industry could really ‘bump up our game’ in outreach.
“My advice, as a person who would’ve loved to have heard about more options for career paths when I was in college, is that you need younger people who are already in coatings to do outreach. What you want are people who can attest directly to being financially stable, well-cared for by their company, and working towards a better future from the perspective of someone in a comparable situation to the students. Go to schools, talk about money! Everyone is afraid to talk about money, that’s why chemists are drawn to medical school—they think it’s a safe bet for financial security. Focus on the things that are being done to invoke positive change— there are examples, and the examples are great ones! It isn’t just about the tech gadgets or the flexibility or games in the break room. It’s about knowing that the company you’re working for cares, cares about you, by providing you with fair compensation/benefits so you can afford to do more than just exist, and cares about bettering the world we live in and the people in it. If you can show that, you’ll be able to hire a passionate group of intelligent people who are invested in the betterment of the industry and the world around it.”
Within the coatings industry, we often speak of innovation in technology and manufacturing terms. I’d like to suggest that we need to expand this innovative focus to include innovation in outreach and recruiting. We also need to focus on retaining talent once they are in the coatings industry. One way may be to provide continued learning and networking opportunities (i.e., attend PCI’s Powder Coating Week, FABTECH, etc.) for our younger colleagues; too often it is only the more senior employees provided these opportunities. To do so will show our industry’s investment in the next generations and their future.
Dr. Victoria Gelling is research fellow at The Sherwin-Williams Company.
Learning and Educational Opportunities in Coatings**
Cal Poly; Kenneth N. Edwards Western Coatings Technology Center
- Undergrad Concentration and M.S. in Polymer & Coatings
- Student Research Opportunities
- Industrial Short Courses
North Dakota State University; Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials
- Minor, M.S., and Ph.D. in Coatings and Polymeric Materials
- Summer Undergraduate Research Experiment Color Technology Program
- Industrial Short Courses (Coatings or Corrosion)
University of Akron; Departments of Polymer Engineering and Corrosion Engineering
- B.S. in Corrosion Engineering
- M.S. and Ph.D. in Polymer Engineering
- Research Experience for Undergraduates
- Akron Polymer Training Service
- Online and In Person Polymer Training Courses
University of Southern Mississippi; School of Polymer Science and Engineering
- Undergraduate degrees in Polymer Science or Polymer Science and Engineering
- M.S. and Ph.D. Polymer Science and Engineering Research Experience for Undergraduates
DePaul; Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
- M.S. in Polymer and Coatings Science
Eastern Michigan University; College of Engineering and Technology
- Undergraduate Minor in Polymer and Coatings
**Any mention of programs should not be interpreted as a PCI ‘stamp of approval.’ All efforts were made to offer a comprehensive summary of opportunities within the United States for coatings training and education.