If you ask owners or managers of composites companies to name their top business challenges, you’ll likely hear this among the answers: “I just can’t find enough skilled, educated employees!” Yet an online search for “composite technology programs in college” yields more than 1.8 million hits. So why do businesses have such a hard time finding solid employees?

There’s a fundamental disconnect between industry and academia, says Steve Von Vogt, executive director of the Maine Composites Alliance, a group of more than 60 composites companies. “Education needs industry input to be relevant. Industry needs enlightened science and training to lift the level of technical competency and competitiveness,” he says. “But too often, academic institutions and industry are terribly misaligned.”

When the two come together in a symbiotic relationship, the results are impressive. There’s more than one way to forge a successful partnership between industry and academia, as the following examples from three composites education programs show.

Sharing Assets Benefits College and Companies

When students leave the Composite Science and Manufacturing Program at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) in South Portland, Maine, they hit the ground running. Andy Schoenberg, department chair for the program, recalls the difference a handful of recent graduates made at a local composites company.

The company, which typically handles small orders, landed a high-volume project. “When they manufactured the first order, they had a 50 percent reject rate,” says Schoenberg. One former student told Schoenberg he was afraid of losing his job, even though he had ideas on how to improve the process based on what he learned at SMCC. Schoenberg encouraged the graduate to show initiative at his new company. “So he created standard operating procedures, wrote the chemical mix logs and put together the necessary structure and paperwork,” says Schoenberg. “They went from a 50 percent reject rate to zero.”

SMCC’s Composite Science and Manufacturing Program just finished its fourth academic year. Approximately 30 students are enrolled in the program, which confers an associate in applied science degree upon graduation. Students follow two paths – a straight associate’s degree or a pre-engineering path allowing them to move into the bachelor’s degree program at University of Massachusetts Lowell. All students leave SMCC able to:

  • Use common processes to develop, manufacture and repair composite materials.
  • Understand the properties of materials and material selection.
  • Apply quality systems to composite manufacturing and product testing.
  • Explain the underlying scientific principles relevant to composites.

The aim is to train students who are ready to enter the workforce. SMCC ensures its graduates are prepared in collaboration with the Maine Composites Alliance, which teamed with the community college to found SMCC’s Composite Science and Manufacturing Program. Members of the alliance have helped develop curriculum, supplied equipment and served as adjunct professors.

The real gem at SMCC – and one that would not exist without the help of industry – is its Composites Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). “We probably have the most advanced composite research lab in any community college in the nation,” boasts Schoenberg. “And all of the advanced analytical equipment is owned by the Maine Composites Alliance or its affiliated partners.” That equipment ranges from a dynamic mechanical analyzer to parallel plate rheometers and a thermal analysis bench.