San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Labor Shortage May Put Crack in Plastics Biz

The music of global manufacturing used to ring out 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the injection mold machines in Claudio Mora’s living room.

For 20 years, half a dozen of the rectangular contraptions – each about the size of a Mini Cooper – hissed and rumbled and popped out plastic spoons and other miscellaneous pieces from the family digs in Desamparados, on the south side of San José.

The smell of hot plastic often wafted through the house, and many nights Mora could be found shuffling among the machines in his pajamas.

The noise wasn’t a big deal, said Mora’s daughter, Alejandra.

“What was really hard,” she said, “was getting used to the opposite,” when the family moved the machines to a more appropriate space in an old bread factory down the street.

That was four years ago, and during that time the family company has managed to grow into something bigger: a plastics manufacturer with its eye on the supply chains of big-time companies operating in the nation’s free zones.

But like many Costa Rican manufacturers in growth mode, Plásticos CMB is hitting something of a snag: finding workers.

“We have problems getting qualified labor because, with the knowledge required in injection (molding), it’s scarce,” said Alexis Villalobos, the company’s CEO.

Labor shortages in high-skilled professions like accounting, as well as in low-skilled ones like agriculture, have been a concern for a few years. Now low unemployment numbers and industry’s increasing specialization mean other sectors of the labor market are feeling the pinch.

More than 250,000 Ticos are employed in manufacturing jobs, according to the Central Bank, making up 13% of the country’s workforce.

Last year, the National Training Institute (INA) trained 297 plastics technicians. But the Chamber of Industries estimates that, just in plastics manufacturing alone, the country will need 1,500 more workers this year.

“There are training courses that INA offers,” said José Salas, head of human development for the chamber. “The problem is, they’re not enough.”

In the early stages of his plastics company, Mora didn’t give a thought to government help except for once, when he went to a public bank to ask for a loan to buy his first injection mold machine.

They turned him down.

Later he got the money from the Inter-American Development Bank, which sent an excitable Italian to review his business plan and enthusiastically sign off on a loan.

“The bureaucracy of this country didn’t give it to me,”Mora said.

Today, the situation is changing.With 11 injection mold machines in a 1,000-squaremeter factory space, CBM has ceased to be a fly-by-night family affair. The company employs 47 people and grosses almost $1 million in annual sales.

The machines churn out hundreds of different products, from ice cube trays for kitchen appliance manufacturer Atlas Eléctrica to bodies for hand-held gemstone analyzers manufactured by AETEC.

Mora and Villalobos (who joined CBM four years ago) have managed to grow the company to this point on their own, but this year they’ve begun taking advantage of several government programs for training.

One program has granted the company about $40,000 to assist it in getting its ISO- 9000 certification and in getting greater access to high-quality export manufacturers. And this year, INA is stepping up to the plate to take on the shortage of qualified technicians.

Villalobos pointed out a classroom the company has on its premises where INA instructors give classes to CBM employees.

Meanwhile INA, which posted an $80 million surplus last year, launched a plan this week to train 46,000 technicians, compared to 3,000 it trained last year.

“The change is substantial,” INA President Carlos Sequeira told the daily La República.

“We’re looking at expediting the institution.”

Villalobos and Salas said they are both working with INA to help establish what programs the institute should offer and which it should cancel.

“What’s missing, basically, is that INA first has to learn what its capacity is,” said Salas, noting the quality of the courses has been falling off in some cases where INA has tried to expand quantity.

Either way, CBM doesn’t seem to be depending on the government for its fate.

With the factory working to capacity, the family is looking to expand to new facilities.

The old neighborhood is getting expensive, Mora said, and a move back into the house isn’t an option, as much as the family might find it nice.

“We didn’t have to get up early,” Alejandra said, remembering the good old days.

“We could just get out of bed, and we were at work.”


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