April 10, 2017      

CHICAGO — Robotics will provide the U.S. economy with a tremendous jobs opportunity over the next several years, said experts at last week’s Automate show here. However, educational institutions and communities must first work together to bridge the skills gap, according to a discussion about a recent whitepaper, “Work in the Automation Age: Sustainable Careers Today and Into the Future.

Some industry initiatives are already showing some success as well as strong industry demand, said the report from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). This is demonstrated by excellent pay and benefits as people move from repetitive tasks to working with robots that conduct those tasks.

But more educational and corporate participation is needed to address the continuing demand for skilled workers, said industry and education experts.

Business Takeaways:

  • Even with increasing automation, the skills gap or shortage of skilled workers is growing in U.S. manufacturing, according to panelists at Automate 2017.
  • Production jobs pay well and are less unpleasant than in the past, thanks in part to robots, but high school students may not be aware of the opportunities.
  • Several organizations are working to help employers connect with workers and to build up the right skill sets for advanced manufacturing.

Manufacturers struggle to fill positions

According to A3’s research, the skills gap is driving wages and benefits in the manufacturing industry, which is the largest automation user today.

In 2015, an average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $81,289 in wages and benefits, compared with $63,830 for the average worker in nonfarm industries. In addition, 92% of manufacturing workers were eligible for health care benefits.

The skills gap is large, according to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed in the next decade, according to Deloitte. (Click here to enlarge.)

But even though the pay and benefits are attractive, it has taken manufacturers more than three months to fill engineering and research jobs, and just over two months (70 days) to recruit skilled production workers.

Workers can start at $20 an hour with a simple high school diploma plus a few months of automation training and professional certification. Rich Ramey, coordinator of RAMTEC Ohio, said a couple of high school students he was working with got job offers early on the first day of the conference.

The demand for skilled workers in manufacturing is only expected to increase. Nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed in the next decade, said A3, citing a Manufacturing Institute/Deloitte study. More than half of those jobs will go unfilled.

Four in five manufacturers already report a moderate or severe shortage of skilled workers.

Addressing the skills gap

Some organizations are already trying to address the skills gap in manufacturing. RAMTEC (Robotics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative) was founded in 2012. It claims that its career centers in Ohio offer the largest, most comprehensive training program in the U.S.

High school and post-high school students can attend RAMTEC to get education and training in welding, engineering technologies, and advanced machining.

In 2013, FANUC, Yaskawa Motoman, and Lincoln Welding become partners. The next year, RAMTEC awarded its first nine FANUC Robotics certifications while also expanding its tech partnerships.

Organizations such as RAMTEC are trying to address the skills gap in advanced manufacturing.

RAMTEC offers high school and post-high school training in advanced manufacturing in Ohio.

RAMTEC’S Tri-Rivers campus began offering apprenticeship training for Whirlpool associates through a collaboration between Tri-Rivers Career Center and Marion Technical College.

The educational consortium now offers eight certifications. To date, RAMTEC has helped 168 students achieve FANUC certification and has offered more than 10,000 training hours on FANUC robots.

“Regional robotics collaboratives help promote the ARM mission with member and workforce training,” said Rebecca Hartley, chief workforce development officer at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. “Our mission is empowering and enabling the worker. We disseminate training ideas for software, robotics in shared locations and offer workforce development and training.”

American Robotics, a nonprofit organization founded by Carnegie Mellon University, leads the Pittsburgh-based institute. ARM includes a national network of 231 stakeholders from industry, academia, local governments, and nonprofits.

ARM said it seeks to empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad, create jobs to secure national prosperity, and assert U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing. The institute also wants to reduce the technical, operational, and economic barriers for companies of all sizes to adopt robotics technologies.

The organization’s 10-year goals include increasing worker productivity by 30%, creating 510,000 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., and ensuring that 30% of small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) adopt automation. ARM also plans to provide an ecosystem where major industrial robotics manufacturers can emerge.

More on Robotics and the Skills Gap:

Industry responds to skills gap

Industry has its own initiatives. Amazon.com Inc.’s Career Choice program pays 95% of the tuition cost for students to study the technologies most in demand — robotics, computer science, engineering, and IT. Amazon also has onsite classrooms in its fulfillment centers.

In addition, more traditional apprenticeship programs can provide entry into automation and robotics so that employees don’t need to attend a traditional four-year college. These STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiatives are all essential to bridging training gaps.

However, the U.S. still pales in STEM training when compared with China, India, and Germany, noted Jeff Burnstein, president of A3.

Burnstein, Hartley, and Ramey all pointed out that by going into an automation program, high school students can avoid the growing burden of college costs. Several reports put the amount of outstanding college debt held by U.S. borrowers at more than $1 trillion.

The presenters praised efforts such as RAMTEC or Amazon’s but agreed that more still needs to be done. For example, many ARM initiatives are still in their startup phases, according to Hartley, who called for more collaboration among those in industry and the educational consortiums to address the current and expected skills gap.