The composites industry relies on a skilled workforce for nearly every aspect of daily functioning. It takes highly trained and skilled people just to do a carbon fiber manual layup, for example. The question is, are there enough skilled workers to keep up with the growing demand? Perhaps not.
A recent report published by the Global Wind Energy Council and Global Wind Organization suggests that a labor shortage could negatively impact wind power installations over the next several years. The report cites a lack of skilled workers at the delivery and installation stages of turbine construction. But it also notes bottlenecks all along the way. In other words, there are not enough skilled workers at any stage of the design, manufacturing, and building processes.
Highly Technical Work
Creating and fabricating with composites may not seem like a big deal on the surface. Yet there is a lot of science that goes into it. According to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, just creating the raw carbon fiber materials that will eventually become finished parts requires specialized training and skill.
Engineers undergo years of education and hands-on training before they are ready to take on carbon fibre production. The same is true in manufacturing and fabricating environments. Some have likened composite fabricating to the daily workings of a high-tech machine shop.
It takes armies of skilled workers to transform carbon fibre fabric into wind turbine blades and airliner fuselage panels. It takes highly skilled engineers to design carbon fibre boat hulls and hypercar wheels. You do not graduate from high school or a community college liberal arts program equipped with the knowledge to work in the composites industry.
Apprenticeships and Vocational Training
Let us assume the previously mentioned report is true in all of its finer details. What do we do about? It’s one thing to warn about a talent shortage; it is another thing to actually do something about it. One possible solution is to invest in apprenticeships and vocational training programs similar to how the trades are approached.
A young person aspiring to be a carpenter doesn’t go to a university to learn carpentry. He or she takes a job as a carpenter’s helper. From there, the young person becomes an apprentice and goes through vocational training. After years of training and apprenticeship, the individual finally becomes a master carpenter.
Another young person looking to go into automotive repair goes to a specialized vocational school that concentrates only on that. Auto mechanic trainees don’t spend time studying philosophy or literature. They don’t invest time in learning about ancient cultures and classic art.
It’s not that those topics are not important. It’s just that they are not relevant to learning the skills required for carpentry, auto repair, or composites fabrication. Highly specialized trades require highly specialized training. The best way to provide that training is to present it in a concentrated and focused environment.
As the Workforce Goes
It is been said that the future of composites rests in supply and demand. That is true, but we cannot forget the workforce on the supply side of the equation. As the workforce goes, so will the price and availability of composite materials. The industry needs more skilled workers in order to meet increasing demand.
If the wind power report is correct, there will not be enough skilled workers to build all of the wind energy projects planned over the next couple of years. Those projects will eventually be built. They just won’t be built as quickly as developers had hoped for. That should be motivation enough to develop new and better training programs.