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.”

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.

ACMA will also support the initiative through its CCT program. The association oversees nine certifications related to specific industry areas, such as advanced composites, compression molding, open molding, light resin transfer molding and wind blade repair. “Having a credible standard with consistent technical content on these various technologies and processes is something ACMA offers that is nowhere else to be found,” says Stephens.

Technical Colleges Jump on Board

Enterprise State Community College (ESCC) in southeastern Alabama is slated to be one of the first learning centers established through the MEEP grant. The college is an ideal fit, thanks in part to its close proximity to Fort Rucker, named a U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence in 2008, and the school’s aviation programs in aircraft maintenance and avionics technology.

ESCC is also one of a handful of schools that previously reached out to Hobbs at Davis Tech for advice on curriculum. “Our campus in Ozark, Alabama, has traditionally been focused on preparing aircraft mechanics. When we got some dollars to upgrade our composites lab through a regional workforce grant, I knew I didn’t want to end with just training mechanics,” says Danny Long, dean of instruction at Enterprise State Community College. “So I began looking for different credentials our students could possibly earn through instruction.”

Long found Davis Tech’s composite materials technology program through an online search and contacted Hobbs. The two hit it off right away. (It helps that Hobbs is an alumnus of Auburn University, just 100 miles north on U.S. Route 29.) Hobbs shared his program’s curriculum, some of which ESCC began using in its aviation program last summer. But the real game changer came when Hobbs, who will co-lead the national training program with IACMI’s Harmon Heath, asked Long if Enterprise State wanted to be the first community college partner on the MEEP grant.