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Breaking into Robotics and Automation: Potential Career Paths in the Industry

POSTED 04/19/2024  | By: Emmet Cole, A3 Contributing Editor

Credit: ABB The robotics and automation sectors offer a myriad of career opportunities, from robot designers with four-year -and more- degrees to robot maintenance technicians fresh out of a two-year program. If you’re looking to start a career in robotics, here are some key factors to consider, pathways to success, and advice from industry experts.

Timing

Katie Surkamer, President, 3P Mechatronics Group.  Credit: 3P Mechatronics Group It’s a great time to be looking for jobs in robotics, says Katie Surkamer, president, 3P Mechatronics Group.

“There is a shortage of talent throughout the whole industry from robotics engineers to technicians. At the same time demand for robotics and automation is on the rise. These trends are set to continue, so whether you’re recently qualified or deciding which education path to take, the future looks really exciting for qualified people.” 

Fady Saad, Cybernetix Ventures general partner and co-founder of MassRobotics shares a similar sentiment. Robotics is “the future,” he says, and there will be growing demand for robotics, mechatronics, and AI professionals in the years ahead.

“We will see a gap of professionals in this space that will take some time to fill. Furthermore, robotics require multidisciplinary teams. No single person can design and manufacture a robot. You need different disciplines. You need people who have experience in software and mechanical engineering and controls and sensors.”

People aspiring to careers in robotics need to work out their real passions and areas of interest, Saad advises: “Is your passion designing new products? Or is it in taking these designs and converting them into something great; that is, the manufacturing and actual development? Or is it more that you want to be taking care of equipment and making sure that it is well maintained? No role is more important than the other. Everyone has a function. And if anyone does not fulfill their function, bad things happen.”

Christelle Keefer, global business development manager for general industries with a focus on education, ABB. Credit: ABB  When we think of robotics, we often picture engineers with strong skills in math and science, says Christelle Keefer, global business development manager for general industries with a focus on education, at ABB.

“But the truth is, people from all backgrounds can thrive in this field. Language arts majors can excel in marketing or communications roles, helping to explain complex ideas to the public. Teachers can become trainers, sharing knowledge and skills to help others succeed in robotics. There are many different areas you can work in from human resources to product design and development. Robotics welcomes people with diverse talents and backgrounds, showing that it's not just about engineering and science—it's about creativity, communication, and teamwork, too.”  

Training

Every role in the world of robotics has its own set of educational requirements from strong programming skills (especially programming languages like Python and C++) to knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and control systems. A strong math background is crucial for roles involving algorithm development, sensor fusion, and control systems design.

Roles such as robotics technician or technical support specialist will require you to have knowledge of the basics of mechanical and electronics systems, how to think about proactive and reactive maintenance, manufacturing best practices, and management of automation platforms. A two-year degree or technical school certification is excellent preparation for such roles.

It is important to note that requirements for some roles are not necessarily fixed in stone and can shift over time. For example, advancements in usability, such as the rise of no code robot programming mean that the coding skills required to deploy and operate robots ten years ago are very different from those required to operate robots in 2024. Today, this is creating upskilling “robot operator” opportunities for people with no previous background in automation at all.

That said, the two most common pathways into a successful robotics career are four-year electrical/mechanical/mechatronics engineer degrees and specialist two-year technical/community college programs. Both provide hands-on experience. Four-year degrees provide additional training in math and theory.

Four-year degree programs in computer science, math, mechatronics, or electrical/mechanical engineering are typically required if your career ambition is to get involved in designing robots. These high-end engineer roles are very sought after, and the big robotics and automation companies provide numerous opportunities for recent graduates to get on the ladder. In fact, one of the first decisions graduates must make is whether to start their career at a large or small robotics company.

Four-Year Degree Path

While a four-year degree with a strong math component followed by a stint at a leading robotics firm is a well-traveled path, there are exciting opportunities for recent graduates at smaller firms too, says 3P Mechatronics Group’s Surkamer, who has been matching graduates with jobs in the automation sector since 1995.

“Many times, big companies lead recruitment on campus and students often feel like they need to be working for one of these big companies because they’ve been working so hard. But there are great opportunities in the automation industry with companies that you've never heard of. Be open-minded. Seek every opportunity. Do every interview that you can get. And network as much as possible,” she advises.

For Fady Saad, whose career began at major corporates, but has also included setting up a company while taking a mid-career study break at MIT, and working at a robotics startup, there is no “right” answer to the question of whether recent graduates will fare better at bigger or smaller companies.

“There are pros and cons to both paths. Large companies provide stability and the chance to learn how a mature, professional company works in terms of structure, planning, and communication. At the same time, you can be a small gear in a large machine. Smaller companies often require you to wear multiple hats, which can mean broader learning experiences. But they could go out of business tomorrow. And no matter what size of company you start at, you can always jump to the other side,” says Saad. 

Two-Year Degree and Certification Paths

Meanwhile, a two-year degree or certification from technical schools can help kickstart a career in roles such as robotics technician, assembler, quality control inspector, and technical support specialist, says ABB’s Keefer, who has a “very heavy English/language arts/writing” background, a Bachelors in Human Resources and a Masters in Training and Development/Instructional Design. 

“Technical schools can provide focused training and certifications that are relevant to specific roles within robotics and automation. They offer practical training in specific areas like programming, electronics, or mechanics, which can be valuable for positions in robotics,” she explains.

No matter what level of education you have, it is important to gain practical experience through internships, projects, hobbyist activities, and attending automation expositions and events, Keefer advises that young professionals “continuously update your skills and stay current on the latest technological advancements. Network with professionals in the field and seek mentorship opportunities.”

Technical school and two-year degree graduates make an important contribution to the robotics industry, adds Saad.

“They are needed because we need people to manufacture robots. We need people on the manufacturing floor to operate robots. We need people to maintain them. We need people to fix robots when they break. The ‘hands on’ technical schools produce people with the right skills and aptitude for these crucial roles.”  

Surkamer is seeing more companies opening roles up to both four-year and technical school graduates, including for application Engineer-type roles that require hands-on experience and the ability to troubleshoot. One such role involves troubleshooting stepper motors used in robotics applications.

“If there’s a problem with the motor, it's sent back for the application engineer to troubleshoot. They need software experience, soldering experience, and hands-on experience. That’s where the technical school comes into play because those kids have had a lot of hands-on experience,” explains Surkamer.

Trends

Whether you take a two-year technical college or four-year degree program route, combined training in both electrical and mechanical engineering via a course of study in mechatronics is a popular choice for people hoping to build a successful career in the robotics sector, says Surkamer.

“You need to know the electrical engineering and programming aspects, but mechanical engineers do really well in robotics, too. Combining the two disciplines is important. And that's mechatronics.”

There are several “hot” areas to consider for career opportunities in the constantly evolving robotics and automation sectors, says ABB’s Keefer.

“Currently, fields like collaborative robots, autonomous vehicles, Industrial Internet of Things, AI and machine learning in robotics, and healthcare robotics are experiencing significant growth and demand for skilled professionals. Additionally, with the increasing focus on sustainability and environmental concerns, roles related to green robotics and automation technologies are emerging as promising career paths.”

Saad emphasizes that automation has “a huge role to play” in solving many of the problems facing humanity, which adds considerable social value to embarking on a career in the sector.

“From aging population and labor shortages to increased demands on productivity, to climate, food, nutrition, and security—smart machines can help us meet these challenges. It’s an exciting space and you will definitely be doing yourself and everyone around you a big favor if you contribute to this whole movement.”

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