Utah’s aerospace and defense industry is growing, with nearly 950 companies employing more than 31,000 people in the sector in 2015. That’s great news for Utah, but attracting a qualified workforce to employers ranging from aerospace giant Boeing to parts suppliers such as Janicki Industries can be challenging considering the state’s unemployment rate averaged around 3.5 percent in the past year.

In 2015, a coalition of government, education and industry partners launched the Utah Aerospace Pathways program to help solve the dilemma. Last spring, 41 high school students from two school districts in Utah completed the pilot program and earned certificates in aerospace manufacturing, providing a direct and accelerated path to employment in the aerospace and defense industry.

“The point is to provide not just a job, but a career path,” says Ben Hart, managing director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which helped spearhead the program. It’s a career path with composites and advanced materials at its core. “Composites are an important part of the Utah economy,” says Hart. “Why wouldn’t we try to do everything possible to line up our K through 12, post-secondary and higher education with future opportunities?”

Hart says that industry was the catalyst in getting the Utah Aerospace Pathways program off the ground. “That’s a critical component in any workforce program,” he says. “Industry must be willing to not just be a consumer, but help produce really good workforce programs.”

In the spring of 2015, Boeing teamed up with other aerospace companies and approached the Governor’s Office of Economic Development seeking a workforce solution. Hart’s team quickly pulled in other government and education partners. They worked diligently for six months before launching the Utah Aerospace Pathways program in September 2015.

The program, which is open to high school juniors and seniors, utilizes a three-pronged approach. During the first semester, students take a 60-hour course at their high schools introducing them to manufacturing basics. The following semester, they enroll in a 48-hour course on aerospace composites and other advanced materials at either Davis Applied Technology College (DATC) in Kaysville, Utah, or Salt Lake Community College. At the same time, students participate in a 48-hour, paid internship at one of the industry partner’s facilities. These include Albany Engineered Composites, Boeing, Hexcel, Hill Air Force Base, Janicki Industries and Orbital ATK.

“You’ve got to have the three-legged stool, with high schools, vocational schools and industry working together,” says Kimberlee Carlile, pathways manager for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “Students get not only the classroom experience, but hands-on training from vocational schools and industry experience as well.”