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Industrialists and academics have teamed up to teach workers the skills they need

Keeping pace with technological change is a challenge we're all familiar with. The transition from typewriters to computers was a struggle for many, and the rampant progress made by electronics and digital devices in the worlds of music and telecommunications has left many confused. But the tide of progress can't be held back. Faced by change, we either have to adapt or get left behind.

And if your job, or your business, depends on acquiring new skills, the implications of doing nothing are even more serious. That was the situation facing a key part of the engineering sector a few years back, when composite materials began to challenge the dominance of metal as the principal means of construction in a number of fields, including aeroplanes, cars, and high-performance sporting equipment, such as bicycles and tennis racquets. Many of the skis, snowboards and sledge-like contraptions on display at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver over the past fortnight are made of the most up-to-date composite materials.

The idea of combining two materials to form a third is not new. Mud and straw were put together to make early bricks; later glass and plastics were combined to make fibreglass. More recently the technology of plastics-based composites has advanced even further, so that they can be trusted in the manufacture of aircraft. The recently launched Boeing 787 has a fuselage made almost exclusively of composite materials. The main advantage is that they are lighter than, but just as strong as, metal, presenting an immediate saving in fuel consumption.

However the increasing use of composites has caused a problem in the aerospace industry, because the skills and techniques needed for the design and manufacture of composite materials are completely different to those required when working with metal. But the workforce remains largely one with metal-based skills.

"There's a wealth of engineering talent in our area," explains Ivan Dean, chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in the North West of England, "but there's a real shortage of engineers with experience of working with composites."

When this realisation dawned four years ago, it led Mr Dean, a former chief designer at an aircraft company in the North West, to get together with other industrialists in the sector, and leading academics from the universities of Bolton and Manchester, to look for a solution.

What has now emerged is a new education and training route that should increase the number of engineers with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to work with composites as well as metal. Next month, the first half-dozen students—all graduates working for engineering firms in the North West—will set out on a path of continuing professional development (CPD) that, for some, will culminate in the award of an MSc in advanced composites design. Others will choose just those units they need for their own CPD needs.

One of the key players in the design and delivery of the course is Peter Myler, professor of engineering analysis and design at the University of Bolton, and an expert in composite materials. "The first groups of students graduated two or three years ago with science and engineering degrees," he explains. "They're working for firms in the supply chain for the aerospace industry, or producing materials for the transport and aerospace sector."

As most of the students have jobs, much of the learning will be via online units, but there'll be a weekly gathering at Bolton University on Friday afternoons to put theory into practice. "Rather than attending formal lectures, they'll be working in teams on their own composite materials designs, in a purpose built laboratory," says Myler. Assuming the first cohort proves successful, a larger number of students are expected to start the course in the autumn.

The initiative has been welcomed at the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), the umbrella body for engineers of all disciplines. "This is a great example of forward thinking, and companies working together with academia to produce a bespoke course," says Ian Bowbrick, head of professional formation at the RAEng. "And as the pace of technological change increases, companies are going to have to do this if they are to retain a degree of competitiveness."

And this view is echoed by Jim Banks, the former head of design at BAE Systems, and one of the co-designers of the composites course. "You can't stand still. There'll always be a need to re-skill, up-skill and fill in gaps," he says.