Back in September 2015, Composites World contributor Dale Brosius asked if a “composites technical talent shortage” was looming. Nearly four years later that shortage has finally arrived. The combination of a surging economy and a lack of formal training opportunities has companies in the composites industry struggling to find qualified workers.
In one sense, the ongoing labor shortage is a good problem to have. It’s far better to need workers than to lay off staff because business just isn’t there. But by the same token, the labor shortage is preventing many companies from reaching their full potential. More workers are needed to design composite parts, design components and assemblies, and run the equipment that will manufacture finished parts.
Labor shortages are not new to the American employment ecosystem. They occur on a cyclical basis, being influenced by everything from economic conditions to the pace at which technology advances. The key for the composites industry now is to look to the past. By understanding how previous labor shortages were addressed, the industry can handle its own current shortage.
1. Greater Emphasis on Trades
There are three main ways to address the composites industry labor shortage, beginning with a greater emphasis on trades. For better or worse, American society has been pushing white collar jobs as being the ideal option for everyone for the better part of 30 years. Today it is just assumed that the vast majority of high school graduates will go to college, earn a degree, and wind up in a white-collar position following graduation.
This mentality has led to significant labor shortages among just about every trade in America. It’s not just composites and manufacturing. That same emphasis on trades that the tool and die industry has been pushing since the late 1990s is appropriate to composites as well.
2. More Apprenticeship Opportunities
Despite modern thinking, there still is a significant number of high school graduates that never do go to college. They either cannot afford a college education or have no interest in higher education. And by the way, this is not a bad thing. College is not the right course of action for every person.
Some young people could be encouraged to enter the composites industry if offered apprenticeship training. Like a master carpenter begins his career as an apprentice, composites fabricators could embark on rewarding careers through apprenticeship programs offered by local fabrication shops.
A lot of what needs to be learned to work as a fabricator is best learned through hands-on training, explains Utah’s Rock West Composites. A good fabricator doesn’t necessarily need to go to school for four years – two of which are spent studying liberal arts – to learn the art of composite fabrication.
More Higher Education Opportunities
There are some jobs within the composites industry that do require higher education. These are the jobs that rely on science and engineering knowledge. To that end, the industry would like to see more higher education opportunities focusing solely on composites.
A good example is a new partnership just announced by the University of Southern Maine and the Composite Engineering Research Laboratory. The partnership will see a new laboratory being offered at the university complete with $1.5 million worth of equipment. It will train the next generation of composites engineers and scientists.
The composites industry is currently in the midst of a significant labor shortage. That shortage will eventually pass one way or the other. If the industry is smart though, it will take proactive steps to address the labor shortage as soon as possible.