By John McCurry
Southampton, England native Ian Williams began his aerospace career as an airframe mechanic in 1987. He worked on the production line in the U.K. for British Aerospace, which was primarily producing military jets. He says he’s been hooked on the industry ever since.
Williams, vice president and general manager at TIGHTCO’s Ladson plant, is also the new chairman of the advisory board of industry promotional organization SC Aerospace, succeeding Steve Townes, who held the post for four years. He has held a series of executive positions in the industry over the past 15 years. In 2014, he took the reins at the Ladson facility, which at the time had 40 employees. It now has 100, and Williams projects that number to grow over the next few years.
“We will be adding more heads as we continue to win more work,” he explains.
Williams believes there is plenty of room for aerospace to grow in South Carolina. He also thinks the state can become the focal point of a larger regional center.
“I think as we see the aerospace cluster grow, South Carolina is perfectly placed to be central to a Southeast cluster including Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. The spread of aerospace companies in the Southeast is becoming somewhat its own cluster. The more companies that head this way, the more development will come.”
TIGHTCO operates six facilities—two in Mexico and four in the U.S. Williams oversees operations at the Ladson facility, which opened in 2013, to expand the company’s advanced composites structures manufacturing.
“Given our location, just five miles from Boeing, our main target, of course, is Boeing. Our first contract was with Spirit Aerosystems for a number of product lines for the [Boeing] 787. We gradually gained Boeing qualification for composite manufacturing and we won our first main package for Boeing and we start production in January.”
Finding sufficient skilled labor remains the industry’s current and long-range challenge. South Carolina’s aerospace sector has made considerable progress in this area over the last few years, but much work remains. The industry is now targeting middle schools to “put a thought in their minds” about becoming an aerospace engineer. That builds on the industry’s links with high schools and efforts to have the University of South Carolina create an aerospace degree.
“We’re trying to persuade kids that it’s a good career move and that they will probably end up with a good paying job for life,” Williams explains. “We’ve worked closely with Trident Tech, creating curriculum courses tailored for aerospace manufacturing. What we have found over the last couple of years, for sure, is that we get a good level of candidates when they graduate. In fact, as I grow my direct labor force, my starting point is with resumes from Trident Tech.”
Williams says Trident offers both young candidates and what he terms “older, wiser heads” who are making a career changes. Both groups tend to be good potential employees when they emerge from the college’s aerospace program, and they have a chance to advance at TIGHTCO if they apply themselves, Williams says, adding that aerospace manufacturing offers a clean, air-conditioned environment.
Hiring and managing millennials requires the right personnel skill of a company. The difference between them and older job applicants is apparent, he says.
“The millennials are a new breed,” Williams says. “You have to manage them differently because they have different expectations and requirements, whereas older, wiser heads that may have worked in other industries come in with a great work ethic. If you can get a blend of the two, it bodes well for the future. What we don’t want is all young ones coming in without too much work experience.”
The annual SC Aerospace Conference & Expo will continue to evolve, and may grow beyond the state’s borders. Williams says the dates have been moved to October for 2018 from its traditional August run. This is being done in part to increase participation by students.
“We want to attract school children from an early age to come see the displays.”
Future conferences may not be limited to South Carolina companies, Williams says, noting that Gulfstream Aerospace has a facility just across the border in Georgia, and Airbus has a manufacturing facility in Mobile, Ala.
“To continue major growth in the conference, we will have to extend beyond South Carolina,” Williams says, noting that they may eventually rotate to locations around the state.