Where will the composites workforce of the future come from?
It’s a question worth pondering, because the long-term success of many sectors may hinge on how well industry leaders meet the challenge of finding enough people with composites competency.
Business is Booming
The root cause of this industry predicament is that demand for and production of composites – these extremely versatile materials – is booming. Why? They offer lighter weight, higher strength, longer fatigue life and higher heat tolerance compared with other materials like aluminum, steel and titanium. Moreover, lighter weight parts result in products that are more fuel-efficient and have a lower carbon footprint.
For all of their benefits, the challenge of adequately growing the composites workforce looms large.
“Industry is especially hurting for technicians—people with critical thinking skills who can develop solutions to problems, and who also have the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively,” said Joannie Harmon Heath, workforce manager at the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), a partnership of industry, colleges and universities, as well as federal, state and local governments to benefit the nation’s economic and energy security.
Trained Technicians Needed
“Some companies within certain industries can’t get trained technicians fast enough,” she said. “For example, there’s a huge need in unmanned aerial systems.” Aerospace is the dominant user of composites, followed by the aircraft engines, automotive and wind energy sectors.
Then there’s the competition among industries for talent who are in the enviable position of having multiple job opportunities from which to pick. In fact, some companies are hiring technicians in training before they even have a chance to complete a certification program, luring them with bonuses, good starting salaries and relocation bonuses.
To underscore the urgent need for composites technician, Harmon Heath quoted from the Manufacturing Workforce Development Playbook by Keith Campbell: “In manufacturing, for everyone job that requires a master’s degree or more, two jobs require a four-year degree and seven jobs require a one-year certificate or a two-year degree.” She observed: “It’s a war on talent across the board.”
To put the scope of the conundrum in perspective for aerospace, one of the world’s most respected composites authorities used the commercial aviation supply chain as a model. As many as 30 percent of its total workforce, or about 148,000 employees, may need to be skilled in composites, he said. “How long will it take to accommodate these needs?” he asked rhetorically. His “best guess” is at least a decade, at the current rate at which the pool of composites-competent engineers and technicians is growing.
How to Accelerate Workforce Growth
On a more encouraging note, there are initiatives underway or on the drawing board that could accelerate this growth. One of the most notable is the Composites Materials Technology program at Utah-based Davis Technical College (DTC), which prepares students to work in industries such as aerospace, bridge building, marine, sporting goods and parts assembly. What makes it unique, according to Harmon Heath, is that “it’s extremely well aligned with what industry needs.”
The program introduces basic materials, techniques and procedures, and progresses through advanced composite skills. Students learn how to demonstrate hand lay-ups identical to processes used by industry, inspection and repair, terminology, and safety that meet industry standards, as taught by instructors in the aerospace industry. “We do everything hands-on,” said Wes Hobbs, the lead instructor.
Those who complete it are prepared for entry-level employment as a composites technician. Classes are taught year-round. The program offers open enrollment to everyone from high school students, for whom there’s no charge, to people already employed. As of mid-summer, the program was at capacity. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, “hired a bunch of our students,” Hobbs said.
Of course, there are other institutions helping to fill the industry’s need for technicians proficient in composites manufacturing, but the Davis Technical College program is the best in class, according to IACMI. As a result, IACMI is collaborating with Davis Tech to secure federal funding to scale up the program and replicate it at five-to-10 colleges in other regions of the U.S.
Dassault Systèmes has also worked firsthand with educational institutions such as Purdue University School of Technology to develop their Composites Manufacturing & Simulation Center by providing modeling and simulation tools used in the industry by composites professionals.
Skill Building with Industry Workshops
Complementing DTC’s and other educational programs are composites technician-training workshops conducted under the auspices of IACMI and Composites One around the U.S. The most recent such event was at Long Island’s Composite Prototyping Center in Plainview, N.Y., and was hosted by the Composites Institute in partnership with Composites One and the Closed Mold Alliance.
Provided at no cost to participants, the two-day training session provided an opportunity for New York State and surrounding area companies to learn about composite manufacturing materials and processes used in various industries through hands-on demonstrations and presentations from industry leaders. Previous workshop attendees have represented companies of all sizes, from Boeing and GE Aviation, to Carbon Fiber Recycling and Ashland Composites. Altogether, more than 2,000 composites workers have participated in the workshops at locations such as Davis Tech; the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo.; and the Dayton University Research Institute in Ohio.
“Every new generation of new products will be advanced materials, because their cost is declining dramatically,” according to Leonard Poveromo, executive director of the Composite Prototyping Center. “We need to prepare people to work as composites technicians in much greater numbers, and that’s what these workshops are all about.”