FIRST CONNECTS: to the Windsor-Essex Diversification Strategy

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


The growth in FIRST Robotics programs is critically important to the local economy and its diversification efforts, according to the executive director of the Institute for Border Logistics and Security.

“I’m extremely excited about how the program has grown because it’s helping train people for the new economy,” said Susan Anzolin, whose institute is part of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation.

“It inspires kids to consider engineering and high-tech robotics for their future careers and creates excitement at the same time.”

The IBLS provides funding for FIRST Robotics locally and also provides two judges – Ed Dawson and Lee McGrath – who take an active role in the annual competition.

The competition includes roles for a number of different skills including marketing, fund-raising, public relations, engineering and design.

“It helps the technical side understand the business side and helps the business side understand the technical side which are critical skills going forward,” explained Anzolin. “It helps kids get excited about engineering while also helping develop teamwork and team spirit.”

Justin Falconer, senior director of Workforce WindsorEssex, said that it’s important for students to see a vast array of possibilities spread out before them before they embark upon what could be a lifelong career.

“Only knowing what your parents did is not altogether helpful today, especially given how many workplace options there are available to young people,” said Falconer. “Robotics is a critical part of many sectors including manufacturing, automotive, health sciences and agriculture.”

“There are a whole host of opportunities if you have an interest in robotics, computer programming and software design,” he said.

Falconer added that the different roles on a robotics team means that students interested in fund-raising, marketing, entrepreneurship and public relations will all find a place for their skills.

“Soft skills such as working within a team and collaborating on problem-solving issues are important skills that are much in demand in the workforce,” added Falconer.

Creative industries are the wave of the future and FIRST Robotics gives students an early taste.

Today’s manufacturing plants are more like laboratories than factories and FIRST Robotics gives students a first-hand look at high-tech manufacturing environments.

“As a region, we have to do a better job of convincing graduates of high-tech engineering programs to stay in this region and we have to do a better job of providing them with high-level employment opportunities,” said Anzolin.

Anzolin says her institute is currently collaborating with 10 local companies in developing virtual reality prototypes and hopes to involve teams from the FIRST Robotics program in the near future.

Brave Controls is among dozens of regional industry partners and organizations – including St. Clair College, University of Windsor, WEtech Alliance, Centerline, Balluff, KUKA Robotics, Plasman Group, Electrozad, Automate Canada, Next Dimension and Vista Solutions – that supports the annual tournament and local teams.

“Growing and inspiring young minds to pursue STEM and engineering is crucial to the development and future of our region as a technology and automation hub” said Brent McPhail, president of Brave Controls.

As Windsor-Essex continues along its diversification strategy – moving from Automotive Capital of Canada to Automobility Capital of Canada – programs like FIRST robotics are vital to building the workforce and entrepreneurs needed to fuel the future.

“The automobility digitization megatrends unleash significant business and environmental growth opportunities for regions like Windsor and Detroit.” said Yvonne Pilon, president of WEtech Alliance.

“According to the World Economic Forum, there is $300 billion at stake for automotive players and an additional $3.1 trillion of societal benefits to come from this, which includes reduction of air pollution, turning time spent driving into productive time and a significant reduction in road accidents and deaths.” said Pilon. 

The automobility sector also has talent at stake.

According to research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Detroit Mobility Lab (DML), self-driving and electric cars will help create more than 100,000 US mobility industry jobs in the coming decade, including up to 30,000 jobs for engineers with degrees in computer-related subjects.

In addition to increasing the need for engineers, current automobility trends could create more than 65,000 jobs for skilled trade workers, including positions for AV and electric vehicle mechanics, and AV safety drivers according to the research.

Talent shortage has already motivated auto companies such as GM and Ford to pay high premiums to acquire startups whose workforces have these skillsets.

“The automobility industry will not only create new jobs but new skills. Regions like Windsor-Detroit are well positioned to become automobility and industry talent hubs.” said Pilon.