Building Tomorrow's Workforce: Hot Jobs in Robotics

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By Maryalene LaPonsie,

The apocalypse may not involve the flesh-eating undead at all. The real apocalypse may involve scores of robots, and the casualties could be some U.S. jobs. Yes, the robots are coming, and everyone from Amazon to Panera Bread is reportedly ready to hire automated minions to do their bidding.

However, a leading expert in robotics says the sky is not falling. The robot revolution will eliminate some jobs but create others. If you want to be in the thick of it all – and maybe create a little job security too – you may want to consider getting a degree in engineering and a career in robotics.The robots are coming, the robots are coming
According to an analysis conducted by Stuart Elliott and published in April 2014 by Issues in Science and Technology, up to 80 percent of jobs could potentially be replaced by technology during the next two decades. A year earlier, a study out of the Oxford Martin School estimated 49 percent of U.S. jobs may be on the automation chopping block.

"Certainly, this is an issue of concern," says Dr. Vijay Kumar, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. "Anytime you introduce technology into the mainstream, you will displace workers."

Kumar, who is a Fellow with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and has served as an assistant director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is quick to note that displaced jobs doesn't necessarily mean lost jobs.

Elliott, the analyst who came up with that 80 percent figure, agrees. "In principle, there is no problem with imagining a transformation in the labor market that substitutes technology for workers for 80 percent of current jobs," he writes in his analysis, "and then expands employment in the remaining 20 percent to absorb the entire labor force."

Robots don't create themselves
Among the areas Elliott pegs for expansion is engineering. Before the first pizza could be delivered by a drone robot, an engineer was needed. One that could design the machine, connect the circuit board and program the computer controlling it.

"Traditionally, robotics grew out of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science," explains Kumar. "That's mostly the type of talent you need."

Now, as robots are increasingly interacting with humans, workers with other talents are needed. Specifically, those with backgrounds in psychology may be called upon to help engineers develop machines that are understood and accepted by consumers.

While human-robot interaction is an important component of robotics development, it certainly isn't the only area in need of research and engineering expertise. At the Georgia Tech Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the following are all key areas of robotics development:

While each of these represents a different area of focus, research starts with engineering experience and an open mind.

Getting the right degree for robotics
According to Kumar, there are roughly a half dozen specialized robotics degree programs being offered in the U.S. today. That may not sound like a lot, but it is a significant increase from the single program that was offered 10 years ago.

For those who are unable to enroll in one of these specialized programs, earning a degree in mechanical engineering can provide the right base of knowledge. The key, says Kumar, is to find a program providing experience across several disciplines.

"You want an institution offering flexibility to get experience in electrical engineering and programming [as well]," he explains. "That's the ideal person you'd like to hire for a job in robotics," he says of those who have knowledge in all three areas.

Kumar also says online degrees in programming or engineering can be useful, but students should look for ways to ensure they get hands-on experience.

"Ultimately, you may be writing software," he says, "but it's still about working with physical things in a physical environment."

Who hires robotics professionals
Once you have the right degree, the next logical question may be where you can expect to work. Since robotics is an emerging field, industry statistics and employment data can be hard to come by.

However, Kumar says robotics jobs are popping up in a variety of industries, and many startups are focused on the field.

Practically speaking, a bachelor's degree might lead to work in the automotive industry or with businesses already using robots. But for those who want to be on the front lines of creating the next generation of robotic products, a master's degree may be necessary. The highest level of education available, a Ph.D. in robotics, will let students become involved in advanced research such as that conducted in the Vijay Kumar Lab or at Georgia Tech.

"I firmly believe we live in a world where technology is celebrated," Kumar says. That means we shouldn't fear the coming robots. We should embrace them and the exciting new job opportunities they could bring.

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Maryalene LaPonsie writes for This article was originally published on
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