Plastics Process Operative

The Job and What's Involved


Plastics are used to make a huge range of products, from things we use every day, such as bottles and packaging, cases for televisions, computers and mobile phones, kitchen utensils and accessories, to specialist products like components for cars and aircraft, medical devices and parts for wind turbines. Plastics process operatives operate the machinery that produces these, and many other products.

Raw plastics materials, usually in powder or granule form, are converted into products by applying heat and pressure using microprocessor-controlled machines. The types of plastics and machinery used depend on the end product.

Job descriptions vary, but the work may involve:

  • Checking and weighing raw materials before they are fed into the machine.
  • Keeping a record of the amounts of materials used.
  • Checking that the machine settings are correct and making adjustments if necessary (sometimes under the supervision of a process technician).
  • Starting the machine.
  • Checking that products coming off the machine meet specifications (perhaps by weighing and/or measuring them).
  • Watching the machine to check that it is operating correctly and staying alert for warning lights and sounds.
  • Taking appropriate action when something goes wrong, for example calling in machine setters or maintenance engineers.
  • Keeping a record of problems that occur and action taken.
  • Shutting down machines quickly and safely.
  • Performing simple finishing operations (such as trimming products).
  • Packing and labelling finished products and putting them in the correct area for collection.
  • Keeping a record of the number of items produced.
  • Carrying out simple cleaning and maintenance tasks.
  • Maintaining good housekeeping practices in the vicinity of the machines.

Operatives may be expected to look after two or more machines at the same time and work at a steady pace, keeping up with the speed of the machines. In some jobs they may have to understand several different types of machines, moving from one to another according to the product being produced. They will have an awareness of the health and safety aspects of operating machines.

Plastics process operatives usually work standard full-time hours. Day working, night working and rotating shift patterns are all likely to be available. Some weekend work may be required. Overtime and part-time work may be available.

The work takes place in a factory or workshop which will usually be clean and well lit. Working conditions may be warm because heating is part of the process. Some products, such as medical equipment and food packaging, may need to be produced in a sterile environment.

Operatives wear appropriate protective clothing such as overalls and, in some jobs, facemasks and gloves. Some jobs involve standing for long periods, bending, lifting and carrying.

The starting pay for plastics process operatives may be between £11,000 and £13,000 a year. Average earnings for experienced operatives may be £19,250 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are opportunities for plastics process operatives throughout the UK. Employers range from large companies that produce a wide range of goods to smaller organisations manufacturing specialised products. Plastics are more widely used than ever before, and opportunities are likely to increase as the industry grows.

Vacancies are advertised in the local press, Connexions centres and Jobcentre Plus offices.

Education and Training

It is possible to become a plastics process operative without any formal qualifications, although some employers prefer candidates with some GCSE's, particularly in maths and English.

The Diploma in manufacturing and product design may be relevant for this area of work.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

New recruits are usually trained on the job and may be able to work towards NVQ's at Levels 1, 2 or 3 in polymer processing and related operations. They may also attend courses on subjects like health and safety, quality control and inspection, instrumentation and control, materials processing and industrial studies. Courses may be held on the employer's premises or at a college or training centre.

Cogent Sector Skills Council have been leading the development of a range of qualifications dealing with specific training elements appropriate to this role, which have been accredited on the Qualifications and Credit Framework. These include qualifications focusing on operations, maintenance and support functions within polymer processing and composites environments.

Apprentices and advanced apprentices follow a specific training route involving four key parts:

  • NVQ's at Levels 2 or 3 in polymer processing and related operations.
  • Key skills.
  • A planned programme of further education.
  • Employment rights and responsibilities including topics such as employment law and health and safety procedures.

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You may use life saving skills as part of your day-to-day work.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A plastics process operative should:

  • Be able to follow instructions and production schedules.
  • Be responsible and able to work without constant supervision.
  • Bbe able to concentrate for long periods and stay alert to deal with problems that may arise.
  • Understand health and safety issues and follow procedures.
  • Have numeracy skills for weighing, measuring and counting.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Be able to keep accurate written records.
  • Work quickly and steadily on repetitive tasks.
  • Be physically fit.
  • Have good vision.
  • Work well as part of a team.
  • Have some practical or mechanical knowledge.
  • Be a tidy worker.

Your Long Term Prospects

Experienced plastics processing operatives may be able to progress to team leader or materials handling supervisor roles. With further training and qualifications there may be opportunities to move into areas such as machine setting or quality control.

Apprentices and advanced apprentices are encouraged to take higher-level qualifications such as NVQ's at Levels 4 and 5 or, in some cases, degrees. This may lead to careers in roles such as process supervisor, processing engineer, production manager and polymer technologist.

Get Further Information

The British Plastics Federation,
5 - 6 Bath Place, Rivington Street,
London EC2A 3JE
Tel: 020 7457 5000
Website: www.bpf.co.uk

The Institute of Materials,
Minerals and Mining (IOM3),
1 Carlton House Terrace,
London SW1Y 5DB
Tel: 020 7451 7300
Website: www.iom3.org

National Skills Academy Process Industries,
University of Teesside, Borough Road,
Middlesbrough TS1 3BA
Tel: 01642 738200
Website: www.process.nsacademy.co.uk

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