September 24, 2015      

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Industrial automation is widely seen as a zero-sum game — if robots are increasingly used, jobs will be lost. However, the reindustrialization of America can in fact create employment, as long as people know where to look.

At the “How to Compete and Win in the Robotics Talent War” panel here at RoboBusiness 2015, three experts discussed how industry and academia can cooperate to change expectations and guarantee a pipeline of workers for advanced manufacturing and other industries. Attendees included a handful of robotics suppliers, more people from user companies, and a few researchers.

“Our program is to partner with other industry leaders and partner with education. We’re seeking to go after young students and creative minds,” said Paul Aiello, director of Certified Education Robot Training (CERT) at FANUC America Corp. in response to questions posed by moderator Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

Examples of efforts to encourage young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) include VEX Robotics, the FIRST Robotics Competition, and SkillsUSA, said Nancy McIntire, regional support manager at the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation. Her organization has been working to increase the number of girls participating in robotics in California and nationwide.

College loans vs. STEM careers

“We’re trying to deal with a misalignment in the education system,” said Charles Speelman, superintendent of the Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion, Ohio. “We know that 67 percent of high school grads are enrolled in college, but only 30 percent of jobs require that degree.”

“A lot of STEM careers are technician-level and don’t require college degree,” he said. “You can make a great living with a two-year degree. For a generation now, we’ve told students that the U.S. has become a service economy. Thanks to robotics, some manufacturing is moving back here, but it’s different now. STEM jobs aren’t blue-collar or white collar; they’re gray collar.”

“With a two-year degree or industrial certification, people can get living-wage jobs,” said Spellman. “Only 15 percent of current residents in Ohio have a four-year degree, but [technology presents] a new opportunity.”

Through a partnership between three schools and companies including FANUC, Honda of America, and Yaskawa Motoman Robotics, the Tri-Rivers Career Center has received a $15 million to provide targeted education in the state.

Our involvement with education is paramount to our sustainability in manufacturing.

— Paul Aiello, director of CERT at FANUC America Corp.

“We’re seeking to show them that careers in advanced manufacturing and robotics are a very interesting path,” said Aiello. “There’s a terrible perception of it as a dark, dirty, dangerous path to work. Because of the belief that manufacturing is still going offshore, only a third of parents encourage their children to go into manufacturing. Our involvement with education is paramount to our sustainability in manufacturing.”

“I have the best job — I get to work with kids and robots. We’re getting involved with students and teachers early to fill the pipeline,” said McIntyre. “We’re working district by district with to embed robots in schools. Students don’t know what types of engineering opportunities are out there.”

Certifications must be current

Certification on current technology rather than generic tools is important to training students of all ages, said Speelman. “We were teaching on World War II equipment, and this business guy told us he was willing to give back all his tax abatements if we could provide him a skilled workforce.”

“There are not a lot of nationally endorsed curricula, we initially didn’t want to be vendor-specific,” Speelman said. “But now, if a specific certification is needed, we’re allowed to substitute it in — industry was begging for that.”

“Now, we go to the vendors to find out what they need us to teach or for the students to do,” he added. “It’s a great match; seven large companies have given criteria.”

The Tri-Rivers Career Center experienced a 300 percent increase in enrollment in its second year, and there was even a bidding war on the most recent high school graduates. “‘I now make more than my dad,’ said one kid in tears,” Speelman recalled. “Many graduates have been moving home, but these people are able to make a living wage, buy cars, and be part of the local economy.”

RAMTEC has nine centers statewide and provides some certifications by what’s needed in a particular region. “We’re trying to meet business and industry needs and educational goals,” Speelman said. “Both education and business need to stop, listen, and respond to one another. Business should reach out to education; that’s also needed on a national level.”

“We can’t do this alone, and neither can educators,” said Aiello. “There are very few standalone applications in advanced manufacturing and robotics, so we train for integrated solutions. We’re now collaborating with big companies and even lower grades in schools.”

“This addresses a direct need for FANUC,” he said. “We want people coming out of high schools to have skills that we’re seeking to attract, certify, and retain. Good workers can come straight out of high school, community college, two plus two, or a four-year institution.”

“We’re participating on certifications on operations and programming, foundational information that students need in programming, and how automation works,” Aiello explained. “Then we seek to work with educators around pivotal technologies — force sensing, vision, and human interaction and collaborative robotics.”

“Companies should be pleased to find that this generation takes quickly to this. It prefers hands-on, experiential learning,” he continued. “What’s really telling is that many universities teach mostly theoretical engineering, but most companies say they need to focus more on how to apply advanced technologies.”

“What’s needed is really a culmination or helix of industry, education, and end users to understand and bring certain skill sets to the table,” Aiello said. “The robotics and automation industry was expected to triple in 10 years, now in only five years, but [having] a skilled workforce is critical to that growth.”

Generations can learn from each other and retraining for robots

Garry Mathiason, a senior attorney at Littler Mendelson PC, asked about the need to retrain existing workers. “We’ve been training 50-year-olds alongside high school students. Robotics can increase their productivity, and we’re working with educators and manufacturers on workforce development,” replied Speelman.

Not only can older workers show students how to use a teach pendant to control factory robots, but they can also teach them “soft skills” such as how to work in a team of different people, he said.

“Ohio is behind only Texas and California in terms of manufacturing and has the resources to develop,” Speelman said. “My parents were factory workers … and we need people to know that living wages are possible again. We’ve earned $1 million, which we’re reinvesting into trainers, equipment, and supplies with the governor’s approval.”

Recruitment panelists at RoboBusiness 2015

Aiello, McIntyre, and Speelman talk.

“How do we create opportunities for those involved in the liberal arts or who aren’t interested in engineering?” Burnstein asked.

“We point such students to CAD and robot design,” said McIntyre. “It’s also how they put a face on their team for a presentation, using softer skills to be able to communicate what’s they’ve learned.” The VEX IQ program in elementary and middle schools encourage children to present their creations in different ways, many of which have an arts component.

“We’ve had an online challenge which involved video production and CAD,” she said. “Students get to use their artistic skills through the program, and we want to expose them to engineering and science even if that wasn’t their first choice.”

“One nice thing about my job now … is that I get to go into classrooms and ask students of any age about what they want to do,” said Aiello. “I explain that all these capacities are involved in the manufacturing industry — design, art, packaging. There are jobs that take a look on the design aspect, the creative side of things, as well as graphics and grippers. Our customers say it’s really key to design packaging to be ergonomically or aesthetically pleasing.”

“There are career opportunities if you don’t look at advanced manufacturing with a myopic view,” he said. “It’s not it’s not working in a repetitive plant job; it’s about parts and products — there are opportunities in every single element”

“We don’t use ‘STEM’ anymore, we say ‘STEAM’ to include the arts,” said A3’s Speelman. “We have students build a 3D printer, print own parts, and take them to a mill or lathe to make the part. We have CNC [computerized numberical control] certification in FANUC, Haas, and Mazak — we certify high school students in all of them.

“Certain students have an affinity or passion, but we also want them to understand the process,” he said. “This is also true outside of manufacturing.”

McIntyre recommended that businesspeople go out to meet students to see what they’re learning in the classroom. “You’ll like what you hear,” she said, referring to the participants of the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation’s contests. Invest time and interest in future employees, McIntyre said.

Encouraging women in robotics

“To encourage girls in STEM, we’ve had projects with all-female robot teams — mostly Girl Scouts and high schoolers,” said McIntyre. “We’ve also had success in Cork, Ireland, in a project with EMC in which 45 percent of the participants were girls.”

To provide inspiration, McIntyre has embedded female engineers in the robotics teams and even run an all-girls tournament with 24 teams.

While there aren’t enough female role-models, she said, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Texas Instrument were among the companies that have offered to send women to mentor students, and the program is expanding. Out of 15,000 teenaged participants, she hopes half will be female.

What employers and job candidates really want

“A paycheck is not enough; millennials want focus,” said FANUC’s Aiello. “Mandatory overtime was driving people to companies with flexible work schedules. Be willing to compete. Manufacturers might have to change their practices a little bit.”

FANUC has hired engineers at all levels, he said. “Most were assigned mentors who were product leads,” he said. “They got them involved in designing cells for trade shows. We have to create purpose, we need engagement with employees.”

Editor’s note: We’ll soon post video of my exclusive Q&A with Aiello and Speelman, as well as other coverage from RoboBusiness 2015.

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