Autonomous vehicles are a big reason why Pittsburgh is known as a $4.3 billion robotics hub, thanks to research coming out of local universities as well as companies ranging from startup to publicly traded. That prowess requires trained expertise to keep the work going.
One of those local companies, Aurora, is making moves to grow the workforce needed to sustain the industry in Pittsburgh: The self-driving firm is partnering with Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC) for an 18-month associate’s degree program for robotics and autonomous engineering technology. The program will train students to work as technicians on autonomous vehicles and related systems.
The first class in the program will kick off in early October. A little over a year ago, the Strip District-HQ’d AV company — which went public through a SPAC deal in November — approached PTC about starting this program. Matt Blackburn, senior manager of government relations at Aurora, told Technical.ly the company’s leaders knew that as they think about the future and scaling their product, they needed to scale their workforce as well. Aurora counted 1,600 local employees as of fall 2021.
David Becker, PTC’s academic chair of trades, electronics and technology, said from the school’s standpoint, it wanted to launch this program because of the “explosion” of robotics over the last few years. And in a statement, President and CEO Dr. Alicia Harvey-Smith noted the need for service engineer technicians specifically right now. This program will allow students to enter the career in a short period of time.
“The robotics industry is prevalent across so many industries right now, from technology to healthcare and manufacturing. This program helps to propel students into all of those professions,” Harvey-Smith said.
The new robotics program is an extension of a long-running electronics program at PTC.
“The thing that makes this program unique is the fact that it’s kind of a combination of different programs,” Becker told Technical.ly. “It’s a combination between electronics and CAD — computer-aided design — and a combination with IT, information technology, and with our trades program for electricians.” That mix means students graduate with a unique set of skills.
The program is six quarters long, or 18 months. Five of those quarters involve classes related to CAD, blueprint reading, electronics, robotics, technical report writing, physics and the like. The last quarter is an internship that requires the student to complete 240 hours working in the industry.
Becker said this a good partnership because, simply, PTC trains technicians and Aurora wants technicians. The AV company’s team worked closely with PTC in building the curriculum as well as serving on advisory boards for it.
The program will be taught by PTC instructors with involvement from Aurora through seminars, events and industry days, where students will get to go out and learn about the work a certain company is doing — at Aurora and elsewhere.
“We’ll have them on our campuses,” Aurora’s Blackburn said. “They’ll see the company, they’ll see the culture, they’ll see what we do here, and I think they’ll be very interested and excited to come to Aurora, but they don’t have to work at Aurora.”
For the first session starting in the fall, PTC aims to fill all 20 spots with a diverse group of students. Aside from recent high school graduates, Becker said the program could be a good fit for someone looking for a professional change, such as a veteran looking for their next career.
Blackburn said he thinks this program is a good opportunity for people to get their foot in the door with robotics and autonomous vehicles.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to grow,” he said. “That’s the other part that we think is really cool about these associate-level programs, is that you can stack them.”
This isn’t the first education collaboration for Aurora. According to Blackburn, the company has partnerships with schools in Montana and Dallas — where Aurora also has workers — focused on the industry needs in those areas. He said what the company is doing in Pittsburgh with autonomous vehicles is unique, and this program reflects that.
“Pittsburgh has been our home from the beginning,” Blackburn said. “We’re incredibly invested in strengthening our relationship with Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh community, and our work with PTC is just another example of how we continue that relationship far into the future.”
Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.