Collaboration is the key to developing effective workforce education programs in the composites industry.

Davis Technical College in Utah began offering a composite materials technology program 15 years ago. The 900-hour program introduces students to basic composite materials, techniques and procedures, then progresses through advanced composite skills. The success of the program hinges on collaboration with local companies. Corporate leaders participate in two partner meetings with the college annually and several visits to the campus per month.

“Our program is designed for industry, by industry,” says Wes Hobbs, national director of composites pathways for Davis Tech. “Currently, our students are getting jobs in aerospace, unmanned aerial vehicles, sporting goods, prosthetics and architectural industries.” The college boasts a 94% placement rate for students in the composite materials program, who graduate with both a local industry-driven certificate and ACMA’s Certified Composites Technician (CCT) designation.

Davis Tech’s program is a shining star in an industry that often struggles to find and retain qualified workers. “There is no doubt that every fabricator I talk to across ACMA and our customers all share a common strategic concern, and that’s labor,” says Reagan Stephens, COO of IP Corporation and chair of ACMA’s Education and Certification Committee.

“As an industry we’re challenged not only in finding employees, but are they going to have the necessary skill level and can we retain and grow those employees?”

IP Corporation utilizes several workforce development strategies, from CCT training for employees at all levels to internships for college students at its four factories. “We don’t bat a thousand, but we have several employees who went through our intern program and are now on our research and development staff,” says Stephens.

Challenges to Overcome

There are several challenges for companies trying to knock it out of the park when it comes to workforce development. “One of the biggest hurdles is that technology is outpacing the educational systems,” says Joannie Harmon Heath, workforce director at IACMI – The Composites Institute, a not-for-profit organization managed by Collaborative Composite Solutions Corporation. “We are at an intersection where we have rapid technology development and commercialization, but it takes time for the schools to build the programs [associated with those technologies]. The jobs today didn’t exist 10 or even five years ago.”

The issue for technical schools, community colleges and four-year universities is they have finite funding to create new programs and must meet metrics to graduate students who land jobs. “We haven’t made it to the tipping point where there is an abundance of jobs in emerging technologies,” says Harmon Heath, who leads IACMI’s efforts to expand composites training programs. “Part of our next phase is partnering with local economic development groups to bring new industry into regions. Then, we work hand-in-hand with educational partners to help build the appropriate programs.”