Pittsburgh robotics companies are trying to figure out who will keep the machines running
Pittsburgh-based Aurora Innovation plans to start selling its autonomous trucking system in two years, but before the trucks hit the market, the company needs more workers to maintain the fleet.
In 2020, it partnered with Pittsburgh Technical College near Robinson Township to create an associate degree in robotics and autonomous engineering technology. The 18-month program prepares technicians to perform routine maintenance, unexpected repairs and new upgrades.
But only five students enrolled when classes launched this fall. Four more are signed up for the winter, but the school aims to have 25 begin each term.
The shortfall reflects a broader struggle in the robotics industry to build a workforce beyond the engineers who design the machinery. While service technician jobs don’t require a four-year college degree, Pittsburgh Tech President and CEO Alicia Harvey-Smith cautioned it would take time to generate interest among prospective employees.
“This is a program … of the future,” she said of the new associate’s degree. “And the reality is we've got to communicate that in words and in ways that connect with the community so that they can see the validity and the value of it, which I think we can do.”
Aurora has taken steps to encourage participation. It has committed to funding $65,000 worth of scholarships through 2024, according to an Aurora spokesperson. The degree costs between $28,000 and $40,000 per student annually, but a Pittsburgh Tech spokesperson said students could receive up to $20,000 in financial aid over the 18 months it takes to complete the program.
Aurora won’t say how many technicians it employs today or how many it plans to hire. But it hosted Pittsburgh Tech students at its Strip District headquarters last week for a career forum with a handful of Aurora staffers.
Roughly a dozen students, studying for robotics and other degrees, gathered in the startup’s vast showroom. Dan Long described his job as a service engineering tech.
“Anywhere you are, you'll find yourself inside the back of the truck or underneath the truck,” he said. “That could be in a clean workshop here in Pittsburgh. … Or you could be climbing into the back of a truck in a dirt lot at a terminal.”
Technicians service every vehicle part, he said, including the camera, radar, lidar, and computing systems that allow autonomous operation.
Long originally worked as a mechanic at car dealerships, and while he still uses the same problem-solving skills, he said he has had to develop specialized knowledge at Aurora.
Pittsburgh Tech robotics student Andrew Pinkovsky is excited that he’ll have completed some of that training by the time he graduates.
“One of my main goals at the end of this [degree] is [to] eventually work with Aurora. … One of my favorite things about it is just how new it is, how innovative it is,” Pinkovsky said.
While he isn’t guaranteed a job at Aurora, his degree is designed to prepare him for technician jobs throughout the robotics and advanced manufacturing sector.
Data suggests his prospects are strong. In southwestern Pennsylvania, there are nearly 300 openings for robotics technician and equivalent jobs — three times the average demand in similarly-sized U.S. metropolitan areas — and starting pay averages just over $50,000 a year, according to John Zappa, senior product manager at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute in Hazelwood. Zappa cited statistics from the labor market analytics firm Lightcast.
“There's a clear need; there is no doubt. And we've heard that loud and clear,” Zappa said of the local demand for robotics technicians. “The real challenge is how to grow the pipeline of people that are even interested in pursuing these kinds of opportunities.”
Apprenticeships show mixed results
The ARM Institute runs a website where prospective workers can search for training opportunities across the country. There are more than 200 listed in southwestern Pennsylvania. They range from high school classes and pre-apprenticeships to bachelor’s degrees in computer science.
New Century Careers, a nonprofit in the South Side, collaborated with the ARM Institute three years ago to establish an apprenticeship program for robotics technicians. But so far, not one person has signed up.
“It’s … a little disappointing, but we're still here: It's fully registered, ready to go,” said Neil Ashbaugh, New Century’s president and CEO.
He noted that New Century’s other apprenticeship, for machinists, typically draws between 30 and 40 new participants a year. It’s common for manufacturers to act as sponsors in the machining program, whereby they hire apprentices, train them on the job and send them to classes at places such as New Century.
“I don't know if it's maybe [that] some of the robotics companies themselves maybe are so new … that they're not familiar with what the apprenticeship model is or what it has to offer to their employees,” Ashbaugh said of the lack of interest in the robotics apprenticeship.
But one robotics company in Pittsburgh started its own apprenticeship a year ago, and 10 people have already participated in the six-month program. Carnegie Robotics makes high-end cameras for all kinds of robots, including off-road self-driving vehicles and autonomous floor scrubbers.
Its director of manufacturing, Grant Gross, said the Lawrenceville-based company has struggled to convince tech school graduates it wants to place them in long-term careers. The apprenticeship is meant to dispel that notion.
“It opened up more people to us,” Carnegie Robotics production supervisor Glenn Besser said. “And if they do well, the hope would be there'd be a full-time job offer at the end. If not, they walk away with some skills, some experience and something to put on their resume.”
After learning about New Century last week, Gross said Carnegie Robotics might want to partner with the apprenticeship support organization.
For Matt Blackburn, a government lobbyist at Aurora, one thing is clear for the robotics industry: More technicians are needed.
“And as we continue to build more and more … this is really the connection between the physical and the digital,” he said of the role technicians play.
Robotics companies are still trying to figure out how to make that connection with a new type of worker.