“We are so excited for the opportunity,” says Long. “As far as I know, we’ll be the only community college in the state of Alabama – maybe even this entire part of the country – to offer such a program.” Pending final approval by governing bodies, ESCC will launch its composite manufacturing technology program in the fall, with enrolled students earning an associate’s degree in applied science. Davis Tech will help the school finalize curriculum that meets the area’s industry needs, set up the composites training lab and host a week-long train-the-trainer course for ESCC instructors. The instructors will also earn CCT – Instructor training through ACMA.

Long says the addition of the composites program will be an economic driver for southeast Alabama. “When we look at developing new programs for the college, we want them to meet the immediate workforce demand, but we also want to leverage the programs to recruit future businesses,” he says. “That’s where we see this composites program taking us.”

Economic Development Partners Offer Resources

Another one of IACMI’s strategic partners is the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) and its Apprenticeship Works program. RCBI was founded 30 years ago primarily to provide manufacturers in West Virginia with access to equipment and the training to use that equipment. In 2014, the institute led an effort to start an apprenticeship program for a flooring company. “It was so successful, and the U.S. Department of Labor liked it so much, that the DOL encouraged RCBI to apply for the first big round of funding for apprenticeships under its American Apprenticeship Initiative,” says Becky Calwell, program manager of Apprenticeship Works.

Since then, Apprenticeship Works has created DOL-recognized apprenticeship programs for 20 occupations that are being utilized at approximately 30 industry partners in 18 states. “Companies contact us from all over the country, and we help them implement apprenticeship programs at their facilities,” says Calwell. “We provide them the assistance and the tools to get programs up and running.”

The organization’s two most popular programs are for CNC operators and programmers and tool and die makers. But in the past two years, Apprenticeship Works has added newer occupations, such as additive manufacturing/3D printing technician. “One of the goals of the program from the beginning was to build out apprenticeships in occupations that hadn’t been recognized before,” says Calwell.

In 2019, Apprenticeship Works launched a program for composites technicians. It’s a natural fit for West Virginia, which has a dynamic aerospace industry. According to the state’s Economic Development Office, approximately 4,000 people are employed at 22 companies in the aerospace and aviation industry in West Virginia. And as with Apprenticeship Works’ other occupations, the program is available to companies in other states – and other industries aside from aerospace.

The composites technician apprenticeship is a one- to two-year program, depending upon the experience of the employee. The program covers several competencies, including safety compliance, fiber technology, materials, molding methods, shop practices, design, inspection and more.

Apprenticeship Works’ participation in MEEP is an ideal extension of the initiative. “We try to provide a pathway so that if a student trains at a community college or training center, then we partner with a local company and build out that career path for them to go from training to a company and into an apprenticeship,” says Calwell.

Composites Companies Bolster Training

Workforce education efforts by industry organizations, community colleges and economic development groups are critical, but composites companies must pull their weight, too – and not just as advisors providing occasional input on their workforce needs or program curriculum. One company that routinely evaluates its internal training to ensure it’s up to par is Bestbath Systems Inc., a manufacturer of FRP bathing products in Caldwell, Idaho.

In 2018, Bestbath instituted a career mapping initiative that outlines the requirements for employees to further their skill sets and advance within the company. “Career mapping gives hourly employees the foresight to know how they can move up the ranks from a beginning employee all the way up to a technician II,” says Frank Alvarez, facilities and maintenance manager for Bestbath.

The manufacturer has a six-step career ladder for its hourly employees: operator I, operator II, specialist I, specialist II, technician I and technician II. Employees must fulfill hands-on training, complete classes and meet designated employment anniversaries to move up the ladder. The specific requirements vary by department and are selected by Bestbath’s executive leadership team and departmental managers. For instance, employees in Alvarez’s department must know how to rebuild pumps, spray guns and other equipment prior to advancement. The production manager holds a controlled spray class a couple times a year that employees on the shop floor must attend.

No matter the department, employees who want to advance from specialist I to specialist II must earn and maintain their CCT – Open Molding. Alvarez and Hugo Castillo, continuous improvement leader at Bestbath, have earned CCT – Instructor designations and teach classes on site, breaking down the content into one-hour modules during work hours. Together, the instructors and employees review content in study guides, watch educational videos, view PowerPoint presentations and answer sample test questions at the end of each module.

“One of the most important things is making sure we have employee participation in the classes,” says Castillo. “It’s OK not to have all the information. As a group, we figure it out together.” Working together and encouraging one another has helped Bestbath employees achieve a high success rate on the CCT exam: The company currently has 38 Certified Composites Technicians.

Quality control is also paramount at Bestbath. “We put a big emphasis on continuous improvement and lean manufacturing,” says Castillo. One of the career mapping requirements encourages employees to either be a member of the safety committee for six months to one year, present lean items related to continuous improvement to the leadership team or introduce an A3 project (a structured problem-solving approach to a particular issue). “We give employees options so they are not pigeonholed into one prerequisite to complete their career mapping,” says Alvarez.

Well-designed workforce education programs ensure that every employee is operating at a high level, says Castillo. That, in turn, leads to the overall success of the company. It also helps spread a positive message about the industry as a whole.

“As composites manufacturers, if we don’t put in the effort to train employees, then we can’t complain when workers come in and don’t understand what we’re about,” says Castillo. “It’s up to us to educate not only the people at work, but in the community, too, catching people while they are young and getting them interested in composites.” Bestbath routinely holds facility tours for the local chamber of commerce and school kids. “Composites are the wave of the future,” says Castillo.

Securing the Industry’s Future

For composites to become widely accepted as the material of choice in the future, then solving the workforce development puzzle is imperative. “The biggest threat to workplace readiness is the availability of qualified human capital,” says Harmon Heath. “You can have the most robust technology, but if you don’t have a skilled workforce to execute it, it doesn’t matter.”

Preparing that workforce requires a team effort among industry, academic institutions, local and state governments and other interested parties. “It’s very hard for a company to do workforce development on its own. It’s only the really big players with big human resource departments that can do it themselves,” says Calwell.

Fortunately, it’s a good time for collaboration as is evident by IACMI’s recent MEEP grant and Apprenticeship Works’ new DOL-sanctioned composites technician apprenticeship. “Companies should take advantage of the fact that at this point in time, a lot of people want to help them,” says Calwell. “There are groups to help and money out there for workforce training.”