Goodyear, university collaborate
Other firms, including PolyOne and suburban Akron-based A. Schulman Inc., echoed those sentiments, but Goodyear might know better than most how the school is doing — it sponsored and works closely with the university's Goodyear Polymer Center, which opened in 1991.
Students don't just come to the school for the education, either. Some come, in part, because they also know that Northeast Ohio is a hotbed for technical jobs in polymer science and related fields.
Mr. Amis said his students have little to no problems finding jobs, especially in Northeast Ohio.
“Certainly, this spring, we're not having any trouble with students getting offers. They're getting four or five offers — which they like, because it gives them a lot of choices,” he said. “I always say that we have ‘essentially' a 100-percent placement rate — because I know if I just say 100 percent, someone will find somebody,…but our students continue to do very well.”
That mix of students and available jobs is the symbiotic, chicken-and-egg relationship that most say makes the region's polymer science work and continue to succeed. It's always a struggle for a region to foster a new industry before there is a critical mass of both industry and educational institutions working together — but Akron already has such a structure in place.
“There's research institutes, government agencies, associations — there really is a great network here — and it makes a lot of sense to be here if you're in the polymer industry,” said A. Schulman President and CEO Bernard Rzepka.
That's why, when Schulman built a new headquarters in 2013, or when it consolidated many of its corporate services this year, it didn't even consider another location.
“We've made a very conscious decision to stay in this area and to reinvest in this area, primarily because of Akron U. But not just because of Akron U.… There are so many benefits to being here, I could talk for probably an hour about that,” Mr. Rzepka said.
Like his counterparts at Goodyear, PolyOne and other companies, Mr. Rzepka said the region is the best place for his company because of the available technical workforce, the opportunity to conduct research at both the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve, University and because there are so many other firms located in the region that can be potential partners on technical and business initiatives.
Even financial subsidies would be unlikely to cause A. Schulman to move, Mr. Rzepka said.
“If someone were to say, 'Come here, you'll be tax free,' we would struggle with it. It's good on the P&L tomorrow, but you don't have the equated people,…and you don't have all the other companies around you. You lose part of your future if you don't have those things,” Mr. Rzepka added.
Such attitudes don't surprise Goodyear's Mr. Zekoski.
“We see that a lot of competitors starting R&D organizations in this area — even those that aren't headquarters here — we assume for these same reasons,” he said.
South Korea's Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. has had a tech center in the region for 20 years, and in the past 10 years Taiwan-based Kenda and China's Giti Tire Group and Triangle Group Co. Ltd. have all opened technical facilities in and around Akron, while Kumho Tire Co. Ltd., opened one in 1990.
These facilities collectively employ more than 100, most of whom are in highly technical — i.e., high-paying — positions.
Nexen Tire Corp. of South Korea will join this group of five later this year when it opens its own tech center in Richfield, Ohio.
In 2010-12, Bridgestone made one of the biggest commitments, opting to invest $100 million in a new R&D center in the city where the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. once had its headquarters, rather than move it closer to its commercial headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.
The city of Akron, Summit County and state of Ohio contributed more than $7.5 million in financial and/or logistics resources to the project to keep the center and its 450-plus high-paying jobs in Akron.
All of them are here for the region's technical talent, Goodyear's Mr. Zekoski said.
What about the future? The U.S. tire and rubber business is not known as a high-growth industry, and much of the U.S. plastics industry has clustered around the Gulf Coast region, where many of its raw materials are produced.
But, at the same time, the industry's technical needs have increased—medical devices, aerospace applications and vehicle makers seeking to make cars and trucks lighter and more efficient are constantly demanding more from the plastics industry, noted Bruce Fawcett, executive director of PolymerOhio. And while Houston might lead the nation in plastics production, Akron is still the major center for research and development.
Mr. Fawcett, whose group has its headquarters just outside of Columbus, said Akron remains a hotbed for his industry.
Akron's polymer and plastics industry might be getting another boost as well, thanks to a shale-gas drilling boom that's erupted in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Royal Dutch Shell announced in June that it will build a $4 billion ethane cracker in Pennsylvania about 90 miles east of Akron — something many say will spur more plastics and specialty chemical companies to locate operations near the newfound cheap supply of raw materials.
“Ethane, a natural gas liquid, is the U.S. chemical industry's main feedstock,” the American Chemistry Council noted, as it applauded Shell's big announcement on June 7.
If the cracker is built and attracts the plastics and chemical industry as promised, it could be Akron's second boom in the field of related manufacturing and material science.
Dan Shingler is a reporter for Crain's Cleveland Business magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.