BAE, Great Bay partner to prepare students for workforce

MERRIMACK – When a leader in global technology, defense, aerospace and cyber security ramps up its workforce in its highly-specialized advanced composite manufacturing division, it didn’t leave the quality of its future applicant pool to chance.

Merrimack-based BAE Systems recently joined forces with Great Bay Community College and its Advanced Composites Manufacturing certificate and degree program. The two organizations adopted a unique partnership that prepares new workers to hit the ground running in BAE’s fast-growing advanced composite manufacturing department while contributing to GBCC’s curriculum, faculty professional development opportunities and most importantly, helping new workers transition from student status to employee.

“My experience with GBCC’s advanced materials manufacturing certificate program was great because it provided the opportunity to understand manufacturing, general concepts and the specific areas of interest that were a fit for me,” said James Wyatt, a new employee at BAE who completed GBCC’s certificate program and is currently pursuing an associate degree in technical studies at GBCC. “My first day at my new job didn’t feel like a first day at all, because I was familiar with the field, how to do my job and I was much more confident going in than I would have been otherwise.”

Advanced composite materials are engineered components composed of extremely strong and durable fibers, often with special characteristics suited to high tech applications. ACMs are light, flexible matrices of those fiber components and are used in everything from skateboards to spaceships. BAE is in the beginning phase of filling an anticipated 500 new positions over the next few years, all of which require specialized training, according to Frank DeFranko, the advanced composite manufacturing product stream manager at BAE.

“The amount of time and training needed to assure us that a new technician is qualified to work at BAE is extremely high, taking into consideration specialized knowledge needed for equipment, processes, safety and more,” said DeFranko. “A certificate from GBCC’s ATC program is a significant competitive advantage when we’re filling a position because not only does it tell us we have a great candidate, but because they can make an impact on day one due to their training.”

The six-month certificate program at GBCC includes two phases: The first, introductory level provides an overview of the field and helps students select a specialization; and the second level offers fundamental manufacturing education and concentrated courses of study leading to machine operator certificates with specializations.

“This was not an easy program to create because of the complex nature of the companies that build and use advanced composite materials for a wide range of applications,” said Debra Mattson, Great Bay Community College’s advanced manufacturing materials program director and designer. “It requires specific equipment and instructors qualified to provide the high-quality instruction that our graduates and their future employers need.”

Classes are offered at GBCC’s Advanced Technology & Academic Center in Rochester. The center was the largest single project under the state’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships in Education Initiative, formed as a direct response to the serious need for developing a highly skilled workforce by aerospace companies. The partnership between BAE and GBCC was sparked in 2015 by a phone call to Mattson from DeFranko, wondering what GBCC offerings may be helpful to BAE’s existing training efforts, specifically in the area of advanced composite manufacturing. The composite industry is stronger in Maine and New Hampshire, but at the time, there were no local training programs, compounding the shortage of qualified workers BAE and other advanced manufacturing companies need to thrive in the Granite State and beyond.

“Rather than requiring students to complete courses needed for degree requirements at the beginning, we encourage them to come back after they’ve achieved the certificate, which in this case is highly specialized and provides immediate value through secured employment, so they learn while they earn,” Mattson said. “It’s a matter of prioritizing what the students want, and what their future employers want.”

And so far, that approach is working.

In the two years since the program launched, BAE has hired three of the program’s graduates, attractive new recruits because their GBCC ATC certificate allows them to immediately make a positive impact at the company, rather than requiring months of costly training at the employer’s expense before they are qualified to set foot on the manufacturing floor.

“The students that come from GBCC have gone above and beyond in terms of leadership and the expectations we have of new employees,” DeFranco said. In fact, Wyatt, the graduate who landed his dream job at BAE, recently applied – and was selected for – a team lead position at BAE.

Students get a personal introduction to BAE through a guaranteed interview for everyone who earn this certificate, an attractive opportunity for many eyeing a rewarding job in a growing and exciting field. Along with lab training, students gain tours and access to professionals at BAE who can help guide their career paths. The tours are also open to GBCC faculty, who benefit from seeing commercial applications for the skills they’re providing students.

“There’s a reciprocal benefit between BAE and GBCC in terms of professional development,” DeFranco said. “While BAE provides feedback on program curriculum, GBCC faculty gets the opportunity to directly connect with BAE technicians and see how the skills they’re teaching are applied in the real-world settings. In one case, a professor developed a new activity because of something he witnessed during a tour.”

To learn more about GBCC’s ATC certificate program or training opportunities for other New Hampshire businesses, contact Debra Mattson at 427-7732 or dmattson@ccsnh.edu, or visit greatbay.edu/atac.

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