When we think of a robot, many of us might envision something like Rosie the robot maid from the Jetsons cartoon, a machine designed to do its owner’s bidding with varying degrees of competence and sass.
In reality, robots are high-performance machines with a tight grip on our economy and our future, and as they make their way into new industries, there’s a growing demand for skilled workers to build, operate, and service them.
While many blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs may be filled by robots, especially in manufacturing, a new set of jobs are being created.
According to data from the Robotic Industry Association, the market for industrial robots continues to rise. This year has seen record pace for robot sales, compared to previous years, with automotive, food, and consumer goods manufacturers driving the largest growth in orders.
“The first half of 2014 is a record for industrial robot sales,” says Bob Doyle, director of communications for the Robotics Industry Association. “Automotive is strong, but the market share for automotive is decreasing while other industries are ordering more robots because they now realize the benefits of newer robotics technology.”
However, as more robots enter the workforce, companies that use them face a shortage of workers with the skills to program and maintain the complex machinery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for qualified robotics engineers is expected to grow by as much as 13 percent through 2018.
“We are seeing many of our member companies who can’t find properly trained employees,” Doyle says.
To prepare workers, community colleges and universities are adding curriculum around robotic manufacturing aimed at undergrads and adult learners.
“Some community colleges have had an established program for a long time, and some are forming programs right now to meet the need,” Doyle says.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts has had robotics education and research programs for more than 30 years, and launched its first robotics degree program in 2007. Now students can earn a master’s degree in robotics online. Researchers at WPI are concentrating on healthcare robotics, including a surgical robot that’s guided by images from an MRI scan.
In fall 2014, the UM Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science began offering a bachelor of science degree in robotics engineering, making it the nation’s fifth undergraduate robotics engineering program.
“The field of robotics engineering is booming. It promises to be the next growing frontier for engineers,” says Yi Lu Murphey, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UM.
“Our B.S.E. in robotics engineering will give students the hands-on experience they need for a broad range of career options, including the development of startup companies in robotics engineering and the growing robotics industry in southeast Michigan and throughout the nation.”
Today’s growth is coming from robotics staples like manufacturing, including autonomous cars and military applications. But as robots become smaller, smarter and more mobile, experts expect growth in other fields such as education, security, home entertainment and human assistance, Murphey adds.
And robotics workers can come from a variety of institutions and have very diverse backgrounds.
In eastern Tennessee, for instance, high-school students can take classes as juniors at the Northfield Workforce Development & Conference Center at Spring Hill, learning basic industrial maintenance skills. After graduation they can take their skills to one of many automotive plants in the area as well as earn an associate degree in mechatronics at Columbia Community College, good preparation for a job working with robotics at the nearby General Motors plant and beyond.
Further south, at the Alabama Aviation Center, students are trained and awarded an Airframe & Powerplant certification for working on aircraft.
“Those graduates are also highly prized for their technical skills and attention to detail,” says Jay Harbert, division director for the Alabama Aviation Center.