Another issue is high employer expectations in a niche industry that many people are unfamiliar with. Job seekers understand traditional materials like steel and aluminum, but fiber-reinforced polymer composites are a mystery to many. “We seek people who are technically qualified and can hit the ground running from day one,” says Stephens. “They need an appreciation for the types of materials involved in composites manufacturing – the sensitivity and potential hazards of the materials – as well as the ability to innovate and contribute to bettering the manufacturing process and overall productivity and profitability.”
Stephens knows that’s a big ask. For new employees without previous experience or qualifications, the learning curve is one to two years, he says. “How do we shorten that time so employees can contribute sooner rather than drain internal resources?” says Stephens. “That’s been the big challenge.”
The solution, says Harmon Heath, requires collaboration among industry organizations like IACMI and ACMA, colleges and technical schools, economic development organizations and composites companies. “Together, we can just do more,” she says. “No one group is an expert in all things, but we each bring a bit of expertise, a bit more reach and a few more resources.”
Industry Organizations Offer Programs
IACMI has leveraged numerous partnerships to create composites training opportunities. In the past several years, it has hosted approximately 100 internships, spearheaded hands-on workshops for 2,500 participants with industry and academic partners, and engaged more than 9,000 K-12 students in STEM activities. “Each partnership is part of an overall strategy to leverage what has previously been done and move the needle a little further,” says Harmon Heath.
Last year, the institute landed a three-year $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Manufacturing Engineering Education Program (MEEP) to expand the successful composites training program led by Davis Technical College to four locations across the country. The goal is to fill the critical skills gap of DOD manufacturers with a qualified, adaptable workforce.
“We are selecting sites that are within the DOD manufacturing industrial base supply chain to make sure they have the talent to fill jobs at companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and small Tier 1 and Tier 2 providers, too,” says Harmon Heath. “We are going to set up technician-level community college programs based on the Davis Tech model, but contextualized for each region.”
One of the top priorities in choosing the four locations for training programs is industry involvement: There must be demand for composites technicians in the area, and local companies need to be willing to partner with the community college on curriculum. In addition, global leaders like Composites One are supporting the initiative by delivering workshops to support the continuous learning requirements for instructors. “We want instructors to be exposed to new processes and new materials and hear the voice of industry – the voice of their customer,” says Harmon Heath.