Developing a Skilled Workforce

The composites workforce resides along a spectrum from no composites-specific training to engineers with doctoral degrees. Graduates at all levels with composites knowledge tend to be hired before graduation. However, the alignment of education and training programs with industrial requirements is variable and results in mismatches between worker skillsets and manufacturer needs.

Currently, high school graduates enter the workforce or college unaware of composites manufacturing as a career. Education and training programs may not be tailored to match regional industry requirements, despite a significant fraction of workers remaining geographically local to their respective educational institution. No national standards or accreditation body exists for the industry, which hinders uniform education standards and transfer of skills between composites companies.

The manual, complex and craftsman nature of composites manufacturing impedes the influx of employees from other manufacturing sectors. Many design engineers are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the design flexibilities associated with composites, and this restricts the broad adoption of composites. Until there is a significant population of engineers with knowledge on how to design composite parts and who understand the processes used to make such parts, growth in the number of composites applications will continue to be slow.

Continual growth of the composites industry requires skilled labor at all levels. Almost 70 percent of companies report challenges in the availability of a qualified workforce. While expected hiring is greatest for high school graduates, a quarter of respondents expect to hire at the masters and doctoral levels.

Moreover, 70 percent of companies report a challenge in retention of their qualified workforce, and transfers to other industries exacerbate the skills shortfall within the composites sector. These transfers are driven by the physical aspects of the work environment, as well as pay differentials with other industry segments. Company size correlates with length of employment; the median employment at companies with retention of less than one year is 150 employees, while companies with greater than 1,000 employees have median employment tenures of five to 10 years.

Improvements in recruitment, retention and workforce development require a large foundation of well-structured workforce training programs, engaged industrial/educational partnerships and educational outreach in the domestic composites industry. Greater than 80 percent of industry respondents prioritize the generation of composites transfer pathways between high school, community colleges and universities. More than half the respondents rank high the development of co-op and internship programs focused on industry input and certification programs that prioritize industrial relevance.