The coming decade will be defined by the largest workforce transition in the history of mankind. Millions of jobs will be lost to technology, while millions of new jobs will be created. Perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of remaining jobs will be transformed and applicants with robotics literacy and strong tech skills will have a significant advantage when applying for jobs across virtually all industries.
It's not just that "we'll need more roboticists" (although that is definitely true)... ALL our students need to be gaining robotics literacy and stronger STEM skills. When considering the impact that robotics will have on society, we can draw a strong parallel between the robotics industry and the computer industry in the 1980's.
Back in the 80's, programming was significantly more difficult than today, there weren't many programmers, and the industry existed as a highly specialized silo. Programmers would create applications for specific industries and purposes (such as banking, health care or accounting), and everyone was impressed with the improved productivity, reliability and workflow.
Back in the 1980's we all would have said, "we'll need more programmers in the future". And while that statement would have proven to be true, what would have been missed was the much larger implication - that everyone would need computer literacy.
The same is true of the robotics industry today. When we consider the increased productivity, reliability and benefits of robotics, we would likely all agree that "we'll need more roboticists in the future", but in reality the impact will be much more profound and far reaching.
Let's look at a few careers that you wouldn't think of as requiring robotic proficiency.
Within the education system, school districts already employ a large number of teachers who can effectively teach English, Social Studies and Phys Ed. What type of skills are we short of within our existing teaching population? Teachers that understand and can teach programming and robotics.
There's already a skill gap within our schools, and as demand for these skills grow over the next decade, administrators will try to fill those gaps. Peference will be given to job applicants with robotics and programming experience. All the other skills will still be important, but there will be another literacy that will play an important role in employability - robotics literacy
That same reality is true for many other industries. For example, if big-box stores (such as Lowes and Walmart) have customer service robots, warehouse robots and maintenance robots, it changes the workflow and potential of each store. Now, imagine that you're a regional director hiring a new manager for one of your stores; do you hire the applicant that understands robotics, or the one that doesn't? If you want to rise to the top of the retail profession, you'll likely need robotics knowledge.
Robotic chefs are scheduled for release in 2017, which will further impact an restaurant industry that is already adopting increased technology usage in the front of house.
There is a hotel in Japan that is run by 10 staff, and the rest of the hotel is serviced by robots.
Even within industries that seem completely unrelated, such as fashion design, robotics and 3D printing are two of the most important skills that employers are looking for.
There are some staggering projections about the number of jobs that technology will replace (approximately 65 million jobs in North America within the next 17 years)... but there will also be millions of new jobs created during that same timeframe. The reality that we need to understand and accept, is that many of these jobs will be reserved for applicants with strong STEM skills and robotics knowledge.
It took the computer industry 30 years to go from being a silo industry to the point where computer literacy is a required skill for a significant number of jobs. The robotics industry will make that same journey in less than 10 years, because we don't have need to shrink a mainframe from the size of a building down to fitting within your pocket. The hard work has been done, and robotics will begin to impact the workforce at an increasingly rapid rate.
Once we consider the significant impact that robotics will have on our workforce and society, it's then important to consider how we prepare our students for this transformation.
We've demonstrated robotics to more than 18,000 students, and spoken with more than 15,000 educators about robotics, so we have a pretty good handle on the full breadth of robotics education, and here's what I see:
The majority of high schools don't offer any robotics programs, and the ones that do offer robotics are typically offering robotics as a club. Enrollment is historically less than 2% of the overall student population, with 95% of those students being boys. This takes into account all existing robotics platforms that are used in high schools. Within Middle Schools and Junior High Schools, enrollment will typically be higher, but it's still rarely above 15%.
If we accept the fact that all students will need robotics literacy within the next decade, but only 2% of our graduates will have any robotics knowledge, we are effectively saying that 98% of our students will graduate from high school without a key literacy when looking for work.
Simply put, we're on the brink of a skills gap of unprecedented proportions. And within a global economy, if our students lack the necessary skills to claim the new or evolved jobs, then those jobs will be fulfilled by people in other countries/states/cities.
But it doesn't need to be a crisis. It simply requires us to address the situation head on, and to change how we are educating our students.
If all current robotics platforms are achieving an average enrollment of less than 10%, then we need to look at how we're engaging our students and what we're doing to help them gain this literacy.
There are a growing number of people who are proponents of making programming a mandatory course, and while I agree that there are definite benefits, I prefer to take the approach that we don't need to make programming mandatory, we just have to make it more interesting and deliver it to students in a way that is more engaging to them.
The coming decade will see unprecedented change, and you can be part of the solution.