As baby boomers retire, manufacturers are turning to innovative workforce programs to find the next generation of composites professionals.

On shop floors across America, composites industry workers are aging. According to a 2015 report from IACMI – The Composites Institute, 22.9 percent of workers in the IACMI region (Michigan, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky) are over the age of 55 and set to retire in the next decade. And as they retire, they are leaving with years of experience and essential knowledge necessary to maintain best practices on the shop floor.

“There’s a bit of fear there,” says Joannie Harmon Heath, workforce development manager at IACMI. “How are we going to keep what’s in Bob’s head here so that no one repeats mistakes or continues to do business as usual and there’s no downtime? Retaining tacit knowledge is a big concern … because the number of available workers is a significant mismatch to those that are leaving.”

IACMI projects that more than half a million workers will need to be replaced in the next 10 years. Currently, there are more workers over 45 than under 45, which means the pipeline is getting weaker. However, organizations like IACMI, ACMA, Abaris, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and SME (formerly the Society of Manufacturing Engineers) are all working with composites manufacturers to make sure they have the tools to thrive after the baby-boom generation retires.

Getting Lean

One way companies can help ease the transition to new talent is by reaching out to NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), which works side by side with manufacturers to reduce costs, improve efficiency, develop next-generation workforces, create new products and find new markets.

“Some small companies know what they need to do, but they don’t know where to look,” says Mary Ann Pacelli, NIST MEP’s workforce development manager. “So we can connect them with a Manufacturing USA institute, colleges doing research, a lab that is doing research or another company that has the materials and help those companies adopt all these new techniques so that they can grow their business.” She notes that over the past three years, the program has achieved more than 950 success stories.

One of those successes came in 2016, when Smithfield, R.I.-based manufacturer Fiberglass Fabricators Inc. (FFI) connected with Polaris MEP, Rhode Island’s NIST MEP affiliate, to help the company cut waste from its processes. Tim Streuli, an estimator at FFI, says the company recognized the composites industry was becoming increasingly competitive and that many of its competitors had drastically lowered overhead. To keep up with its competition, FFI needed to operate more efficiently. The company had begun a lean manufacturing initiative in the 1990s, but the effort subsided due to personnel changes and a lack of process standardization.

“We had gone through kind of a generational turnover,” says Streuli. “The older generation had left and the younger generation has come in and … the transition was not as smooth and as forthcoming as possible. That had created some issues as far as the way things are done in the shop, so it was a matter of straightening everything back out.”

Polaris conducted Lean 101 training for FFI, which introduced the company to tools that leadership can use to make continuous improvements to logistics and operations. FFI leaders selected staff members to form an improvement management team, which had the opportunity to be trained on Polaris’ lean manufacturing tools and concepts, such as one-piece flow production to reduce unnecessary batches, workplace organization, project management and planning through visual tools, such as “value stream” flowcharts that help leaders make better strategic decisions. Polaris also helped FFI’s management team easily communicate the results of the program to stakeholders.

Streuli says that because of the improvements FFI made, the company was able to invest $300,000 in a new, quicker CNC machine that automated its glass-cutting processes and produced more consistent parts.