Magazine article Techniques

The Robotics Industry: Creating Jobs, Closing the Skills Gap

Magazine article Techniques

The Robotics Industry: Creating Jobs, Closing the Skills Gap

Article excerpt

Henrik Christensen is a busy man. A professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Christensen also heads the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, as well as the Robotics Virtual Organization. Yet vacationing in Denmark this summer, the work phone that kept ringing belonged to his nieces husband, a young trade school graduate in an advanced machining apprenticeship.

"They called him three times on vacation. They said, 'We don't have anyone who can operate the machine. Can you come in?" Christensen said.

The scene was particularly interesting to Christensen because it is one he envisions playing out with increasing frequency in the United States, where the number of robots and automated machines in use are outpacing the workers needed to operate them.

The robotics revolution is helping to bring jobs back to the United States. But of the 3.5 million manufacturing positions expected to open in the next 10 years, only 1.5 million will find qualified applicants, according to research from Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute. Experts agree that the bulk of those 2 million unfilled jobs will be for skilled labor--workers with technical education and training in mechanical, electrical and computer systems, which is right up career and technical education's alley.

"We're shifting the entire workforce up in training," Christensen said. "We're very much seeing a different set of skills than we've seen in the past. The person on the floor, who came out of a tech high school, it's no longer screwdrivers--even they get to do the programming. They're managing a very advanced machine."

"The bad news is if you don't have training, you're in trouble. The good news is if you have training, you're going to make more money than you did before," stated Christensen.

The need is already profound. In a recent survey by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), 89 percent of executives said they have had trouble finding skilled workers. The shortage has caused them to run overtime or outsource labor, potentially compromising the quality of their product.

"We have members saying we had to turn down a $100 million order because we didn't have the production force," said Jeannine Kunz, director of training and development for Tooling U-SME. "When we ask them where was the greatest shortage, it was in skilled production."

One of the jobs that's in greatest demand now, across all industries and regions, Kunz said, is for computer and numerical controls machinists, which includes programming and machining. "It can be confused with low-skill, but these are high-skill jobs," she said.

"You're Going to See Robots."

In 2006, as part of an ambitious global expansion, South Korean auto manufacturer Kia Motors announced it would open its first automobile plant in America. It invested $1.2 billion into a 3,300-acre site in west Georgia.

This move gave the company proximity to the U.S. market, along with access to southeast parts suppliers, rail and shipping corridors, and thousands of nearby unemployed textile workers familiar with mechanical labor. But Kia told the state these workers lacked updated skills. So Georgia built a $14.5 million training center on site, where all 3,000 hires received hundreds of hours of training in the robotics, welding and electronics labs. (Kia reportedly did not hire union auto workers from the nearby shuttered GM and Ford plants.)

"We were able to find quite a number of people who had electrical or mechanical knowledge, but the learning curve on both sets of groups was pretty steep," said Randy Jackson, Kia's senior vice president of human resources and administration.

The automobile industry has been the largest adopter of traditional robotics to date. And the use of collaborative robots, which work alongside humans on intricate, lightweight tasks, is expanding rapidly across all industries. …

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