Oregon FIRST Robotics: Nurturing the tech workforce by making geeks cool

In spite of a vibrant startup culture in the northwest that we all love, among a business community that embraces technology and nurtures innovation, Oregon tech employers and the regional economy face a workforce problem.

“Growth in Oregon’s technology industry is creating a widening supply-demand gap for technology talent,” said Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon. “Portland was ranked 6th in the country for growth in technology jobs last year. If we’re going to sustain this growth, we need to increase investments in science, technology, engineering, and math education throughout the state.”

There’s a mismatch. While unemployment numbers hover around nine percent, this potential workforce doesn’t have the skills to fill the open jobs. There are nearly two jobs available in science-, technology- and engineering-focused positions for every one unemployed person, while each non-science opening is fought over by more than four candidates seeking the position.
And as the existing baby boomer workforce retires, this problem will only get worse.

A shift needs to happen, but this isn’t a problem that can be addressed overnight—better to think in terms of 5-8 years, at least, and instill kids with a sincere interest in science and technology. But what lights a fire with kids and stays with them long enough to result in, and even help fund, pursuing engineering and technical degrees, then enter the workforce with technical experience that results in lucrative jobs?

Robots, that’s what!

Robots ignite excitement, imagination and enthusiasm. Show a kid an auditorium packed with full-sized, competitive, remote-controlled, basketball-shooting, colorful, loud-and-powerful, potentially dangerous robots built by their peers, and watch that kid light up.

Better yet, make it a varsity sport and include enticements like the opportunity to compete regionally, nationally and even internationally. Show them that top universities are putting cash on the table to woo robotics students, who are 10 times more likely to have an internship their freshman year, and the over $16 million in scholarships available. Then provide these students the materials, resources, mentoring and infrastructure to finance, design, build and program these robots themselves, and cut them loose.

These are the fundamentals of Oregon FIRST Robotics, a 10-year-old program for kids (PDF) from first through twelfth grade, supported by Oregon employers including Autodesk, Google, Boeing, Mentor Graphics and Intel, run by thousands of statewide volunteers and coordinated by the Oregon University System.

Part of the 20-year-old national First Robotics Competition, which is supported by 3 out of 5 Fortune 500 companies, and received the Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award, the Oregon program teaches lessons beyond just hard engineering skills to its more than 5,000 kids, but also project management, co-opetition, how to secure funding by pitching future employers, complete what many would view as an unachievable task, work shoulder-to-shoulder with industry leaders under inflexible long- and short-lead deadlines, and stick to a budget.

You know, the stuff you do every day, but didn’t learn until your first startup. These kids are learning it—and loving it—starting in grade school and on through high school.

If you know a kid you’d like to set on a collision course with science and tech, point them toward one of the Oregon teams. If you’re part of a company that has volunteer hours to offer, or would benefit from priming the workforce pump of young scientists, engineers, developers and math-focused employees, look no further.

[Editor: Thank you to Jason Love of Waggner Edstrom for this post.]

[Robot image courtesy Shutterstock. Used with permission.]

  1. […] in December, Silicon Florist introduced you to Oregon FIRST Robotics, a program for teens that nurtures interest in technology and business skills – skills […]

  2. […] in December, Silicon Florist introduced you to Oregon FIRST Robotics, a program for teens that nurtures interest in technology and business skills – skills […]

  3. Thanks for posting this Rick. Great timing just after the Business Plan Oregon Summit. We have several new things happening that we need to keep you posted on as related to STEM and connecting K-12 education with OUS and then with Industry.

  4. Thanks for posting this! My son is an avid FIRST-ie, having starting with the LEGO program in elementary school and now has moved on to participate in the local FIRST robotics team. I can’t tell you what a difference FIRST has made in his life; it’s probably one of the main reasons he got excited about school. Colleges really do pay attention to this program and admissions staff specifically ask about it, especially for kids interested in science & engineering programs.

    I think it’s really important for businesses to take note of the programs in their area and support them as they would other grassroots campaigns. While the LEGO programs are relatively cheap to run (they can re-use most of their kits for several years, and tournament entries are free or reasonable) one big barrier for the high school robotics programs is the price tag. The team my son is a member of in Bend involves students from all over Central Oregon, and the annual budget is around $26,000. This budget includes parts and pieces to build the robot (there’s a required “kit of parts” and then a max budget to build the rest of the robot), tournament fees, and travel expenses. That’s a LOT of cookies to sell at a bake sale – most FIRST robotics teams are extremely dependent on grant funds and corporate sponsors.

    Please, click that FIRST link and check out your local team. Build season starts on January 5th, so that is when the real action begins. These are smart & interesting kids with great ideas. Help out however you can – as a volunteer, mentor, or sponsor. If nothing else, pencil in the dates for the tournament in Portland (March 7-8, 2013) – admission is free – and stop by to see the culmination of all their hard work!

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