GW Plastics Hosts Students in Search for Workers

  • During an exercise meant to teach about creating efficiency in production lines, Randolph Union High School students Sam Huggett, 15, left, and Kurt Engel, 16, middle, check a plastic part to make sure it has been assembled correctly while their math and science teacher Vickie Johnson prepares parts to be hammered together at G.W. Plastics in Royalton, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The students are participating in the School for Tech, a G.W. Plastics program meant to raise interest among local high schoolers in technology and manufacturing. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • G.W. Plastics Bethel Plant Manager Scott Perkins, left, walks his School for Tech class, from left, Kurt Engel, Vickie Johnson, Sam Haggett, and Garrett Brown, to the production floor of the company's Royalton, Vt., plant Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Linda Spooner, of Randolph examines freshly produced plastic parts for quality as School For Tech students from Randolph Union High School look on during a tour of the G.W. Plastics Royalton, Vt., production floor Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 9/15/2018 11:25:26 PM
Modified: 9/17/2018 1:23:19 PM

Royalton — Scott Perkins led a group of high school students wearing hair nets and blue knee-length gowns through canyons of injection-molding machines that are stamping out parts for medical stents and syringes.

“Pay attention!” instructs Perkins, the plant manager at GW Plastics manufacturing plant in Royaltons, above the din of machinery. “That way you’ll get the big picture. There’s no reason you can’t do this. There are no roadblocks.”

The students Perkins is leading — sophomores and juniors from Randolph Union High School — are enrolled in GW Plastics’ semester long School for Tech program, which gives students hands-on exposure in the factory in the hope of sparking their interest in one day working in the field of advanced manufacturing.

“We’ve doubled our size in the past 18 months,” said Perkins, pointing to area on the factory floor where another $1 million, glass-encased clean room work station is to be installed shortly. “We’re going to continue growing here.”

There are currently 11 positions open at both the company’s plant in Royalton and the one 10 minutes away in Bethel. Like many businesses in the Upper Valley, GW Plastics, with revenues approaching $200 million, is struggling to find workers.

It should be an easy sell: entry-level wages begin around $13 an hour but many workers earn closer to $15 per hour by straddling different shifts.

The medical plan includes an a $650 deductible and after that the company picks up 80 percent of expenses. The 401K plan, between company match and employee contributions, can equal 11 percent of annual salary.

Yet despite those inducements, it’s a challenge to find workers in central Vermont. Young workers are fleeing the state and many are unaware that employers like GW Plastics exist, the company says.

“Even a lot of the locals have no idea of the businesses that are contained right here in this area,” said Sandy Waltrom, who “retired” from GW Plastics after 47 years as a purchasing manager but recently returned two to three days per week to train new employees.

GW Plastics’ School for Tech — the title was adapted from the 2003 movie School of Rock in which a teacher energizes his class by turning them into star rock ‘n’ roll band members — now is in its fourth season with eight students.

To date, 65 students have passed through the 24-week program where they earn a science credit and are introduced into the fundamentals of high-tech manufacturing.

It’s the old classroom game of show-and-tell but with a new twist.

“I wanted people to know we are here and what’s here,” explained Perkins in his native Maine accent about the genesis of School for Tech. “I found a lot of youth didn’t know about us or the opportunities we have. That’s why we started School for Tech.”

GW Plastics, founded more than 50 years ago by two plastics engineers, is now the state’s third largest manufacturer with 400 employees in Vermont and about another 700 globally at plants in Texas, Arizona, Mexico, Ireland and China. The company, known as an original equipment manufacturer or OEM, makes plastic components and parts for such medical giants as Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic and automotive technology companies like Bosch and Continental Automotive.

The founders of GW Plastics sold the company in 1973 and it progressed through a series of parent company mergers and acquisitions to eventually become owned by Standard Oil of Ohio. In 1983 an investor group led by the plant general manager Frederic Riehl bought GW Plastics, which remains closely held and today is headed by his son, Brenen Riehl, who has aggressively pushed the company’s expansion.

The heart of the company’s operations is custom designing and building the steel metal molds, which cost $250,000 to $750,000 apiece and weigh thousands of pounds, into which hot liquid resin or silicone is injected to stamp out the plastic components. Each Austrian-made injection machine, about the size of a compact automobile, costs upwards of $500,000, and the Royalton plant alone has 31 of them.

School for Tech is one of several employee training and recruitment programs at the company. GW Plastics has a close collaborative relationship with Vermont Tech, where it funds scholarships and leadership programs in manufacturing technology and which also is a feeder school for the company.

Manny Aretakis, from Pembroke, Maine, graduated from VTC in June with a degree in manufacturing engineering and in July he began what will be an 18-month training program to become a master molder, a nationally recognized designation that will allow him to run the half-million machines.

“I came in with zero molding experience, so this is all new to me,” said Aretakis, who became aware of GW Plastics through faculty members and other VTC classmates who went on to work at the company. The training program involves him progressing through different departments such as the tooling shop, mold maintenance, environment and safety and machine operations.

“I didn’t want to be a guy with a calculator sitting at my desk all day,” said Aretakis, who works on a farm on the weekends. “At work here you are getting your hands everyday.”

Someone who is preternaturally disposed to thinking mechanically and improvising to fix things is a common trait among GW Plastics’ young engineers.

Jonathan Leeser, a 2017 VTC graduate from Randolph who was an intern at the company while a student before he was hired as trainee engineer, describes himself as “the kid who took the lawnmower apart and restrung the ripcord with a rope around it to get it working again.”

Lesser called the first time he walked onto the manufacturing floor as “mind blowing. There’s all this automation everywhere and everybody’s working at their jobs.” He won a plum job: operating GW Plastic’s $1 million metal 3D printer — one of only three metal 3D printers operating in the country — that makes precision injection molds.

“I’ve only been out of college a year and half,” he marveled.

Kurt Engel, a junior at Randolph Union High School, said he enrolled in the School for Tech program because “I want to be involved in engineering and entrepreneurship.”

He described as “so neat, putting stuff together like this ... it’s not just the machines. There’s a whole community behind it.”

But, as much as Engel is intrigued by what GW Plastics does, he’s not sure whether his future involves remaining in the area. “There’s not much to do in Randolph other than skateboard,” he said.

Perkins, the plant manager, knows that it can be tough to interest kids in working at GW Plastics after they are finished with school given the company’s location.

“I figured get them in high school and just introduce them to the company and they’ll think, hmm, maybe I want to be an engineer,” he said.

Cathy Tempesta, GW Plastics’ human resources chief, said the company is looking long term. She said it’s not unusual for people to move away as young adults and then return when they have their own families.

“They may come back in five or 10 years,” she said. “And we’ll be here.”

Garrett Brown, 16, a sophomore from Hancock, Vt., said he enrolled in School for Tech because “I told the guidance counselor I was a better hands-on learner. And she said ‘Oh, we have the perfect program for you.’ ”

He likes being outside and to work on cars and trucks, “in a garage or on a farm.”

And although Brown said he has been impressed by what he’s been exposed in the School for Tech sessions. “I’m not really good at being indoors and around a lot of people.”

Brown called the classes “pretty fun” — he was impressed by the medical glue guns that GW Plastics makes which are used by surgeons in suturing — but he foresees he’ll be doing something else in his future.

“People always need food,” he  said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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