Finding a job in the composites industry is not much different than finding a job in any other engineering or technical field. The information in this article, therefore, will be of use in fields outside of composites. There are, however, some specialized resources for the composites professional. Those will be mentioned here.
I have held four jobs (five, if you count running this site) since getting my Masters degree in January of 1991. I wasn't planning to change jobs so often, and I never even seriously looked for a job after my first one--I sort of stumbled across some interesting jobs at the right times. But even though my career path has been somewhat unusual, the ways in which I found my jobs can be applied in more general situations.
Like most college graduates, I received my first job through on-campus interviews. My major was Aerospace Engineering (Aeronautics and Astronautics, to be exact). As an undergraduate, I wasn't seriously into composites, though I had started concentrating in structures. While applying for graduate school, I also interviewed for jobs. Fortunately, I made it into graduate school, because I didn't have much luck interviewing. This was in large part because the slump in the aerospace industry was just beginning.
I completed my Masters degree while working on an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The combination of an advanced degree (with a thesis) and the practical work experience made all the difference in my next round of interviewing. By that time, I had done enough work in composites that I was able to speak about the practical, and not just the theoretical, aspects of working with the materials. Although it's important to show yourself as a generalist (recruiters don't expect college graduates to be specialists), showing some specialty knowledge tells the recruiter you have the potential to become an expert.
During those college interviews, I carried a portfolio of the work I had done. This portfolio was a three-ring binder with some summary viewgraphs from my thesis presentation and pictures of some of the composite structures I had built. This was a big hit with the interviewers (most called me to make sure I brought it along on my plant visits), and I still carry a portfolio today.
My first job was with Orbital Sciences Corporation, where I was responsible for many of the composite structures on the Taurus launch vehicle. I worked at Orbital for almost five years. Towards the end, I was beginning to think about leaving (we were waiting on another Taurus contract, and there wasn't much for me to do), but my wife had a good job there so I was really just waiting out the slump.
In April of 1995, I went to the SAMPE convention in Anaheim. While walking through the exhibits, I dropped off my resume at the SAMPE career booth. SAMPE, a professional society for the composites industry, is a good career resource. In addition to the career booth at their annual convention, they also publish a newsletter (sent to members) with job opening and job wanted ads. Local chapters can also be a good resource for networking. Finally, don't limit yourself to SAMPE--there are many other associations which deal with composite materials.
Anyway, I didn't expect anything to come from dropping off my resume, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call a few weeks later for an interview. Aurora Flight Sciences was starting up a manufacturing facility, and I eventually took a job as manufacturing engineer.
My job at Orbital required me to work with many outside manufacturers. While speaking to a sales representative from one of those manufacturers, I just happened to mention that I was interviewing for a new job. He said that his company was looking for a new engineer, put me in touch with the company president, and I ended up getting an offer.
Networking is very important. You will be talking to manufacturers, material vendors, researchers, and other professionals. Get to know them, and make sure they get to know you at the same time. Your primary goal is to form a good working relationship with the people outside your company, but you never know where those contacts might lead.
Also, keep up your contacts as much as possible. After graduating from college, I called my former mentor at LANL every six months or so, just to let him know how I was doing and to see how he was doing. In late 1995, he called me with a job offer. I wasn't ready to leave Aurora (I really loved that job), but for personal reasons my family decided it would be best to move.
The LANL job didn't turn out like I thought it would. The project I was hired for was cancelled while I was on the road from West Virginia to New Mexico, and the new project I was assigned to didn't hold my interest. However, we really liked living in Los Alamos, so I decided to tough it out.
Now, you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about looking for jobs in the newspaper. In general, composite jobs are fairly specialized, and you don't see many ads. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a job ad for a composite engineer in the Wall Street Journal. Not their National Employment Weekly, but the Journal itself.
To make a long story short, I sent in a resume, interviewed for the job, and was turned down because the owner was worried I didn't have enough direct experience (this was a sporting goods company, and most of my experience is in aerospace). I tried to show that my composites experience was more general than that, but I guess I wasn't convincing enough.
Anyway, about a week after that rejection, my wife got a job in Albuquerque. We were reading the classified ads, trying to find an apartment for her, when I decided to check the jobs section. This was the only week in over a year we had read the Albuquerque paper, and Albuquerque is not known for its composites industry. You can imagine my surprise again when I found an ad asking for a composites engineer (this time for one with fairing experience, which is exactly what I had done at Orbital). So again I applied, and that's the job I've held since 1997.
Although newspapers are in general a poor source for composites jobs, I seem to have had good luck finding jobs that way. If you're actively looking for a job, it doesn't take much effort to check the newspapers once a week. California has a large concentration of composite companies, and the California papers should be available in most libraries. I have also seen composite jobs in Boston, the Baltimore-DC area, Florida, and Denver (all of those areas have clusters of aerospace or sporting goods companies).
One final source for jobs, which I have never used, is employment services. I have started cataloging those with Web pages on this site, and those that specialize in composites usually advertise in the professional and trade magazines. High Performance Composites and Composites Technology usually carry several ads for employment services. Some companies also advertise job openings directly in those sources.