Robotics & Automation Careers with MIAT College of Technology: Season 4, Episode 9
Meet MIAT College of Technology
Since 1969, MIAT College of Technology has helped thousands of individuals get the industry-relevant skills, experience, and connections it takes to pursue rewarding technical careers. After more than fifty years in technical career education, MIAT has built an excellent reputation and strong working relationships with top employers.
As a MIAT student today, you’ll benefit from the proud legacy of success and continued good name of MIAT within the technical training industry.
Our Guests: Maggie Schwanitz and Muhammad Laghari from MIAT College of Technology
On this episode of Imagine America Radio, we interview Maggie Schwanitz and Muhammad Laghari. Maggie is the robotics and automation director and Muhammad is one of the instructors of the robotics program at MIAT College of Technology.
Maggie and Muhammad give us more information on what a robotics and automation technician does, what the career outlook is like, and how a robotics and automation program at MIAT College of Technology can help students prepare for the field.
Bob Martin: Good afternoon, and welcome to this episode of Imagine America Radio, where we’re going to focus on certificate and diploma programs in our series on Imagine America Radio. These particular careers require certificates and diplomas. Joining us today is Maggie Schwanitz and Muhammad Laghari. Maggie is the robotics and automation director, and Muhammad is one of the instructors in the robotics program at MIAT College of Technology. Today we’re going to discuss the future of careers in the robotics technology area. As a leading provider of education and certificate programs in robotics and automation technology, we couldn’t think of anyone better to talk to than Maggie and Muhammad—and also MIAT College of Technology. Let’s start off, Maggie, if you don’t mind—or Muhammad, whichever you’re most comfortable with. Why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about what is involved with being an automation technician and then briefly explain what they may do on a daily basis.
Maggie Schwanitz: Awesome. Thank you so much, Bob. So, the field of robotics and automation is really an emerging and evolving industry. It’s really happening now. Use cases, applications. We really gear our curriculum toward supporting manufacturing or otherwise automated process environment. These students develop technician skills or technical skills to install, control, maintain, repair mechanical and electrical systems. They’ll work with a variety of equipment—motors, conveyors, controllers, industrial robots, industrial networks, and so much more. And our curriculum really covers kind of three main areas: electrical and electronics, mechanical systems and maintenance, and then finally programming control elements that will be the backbone to the whole system.
Lee Doubleday: All right. Great. Well, now that we have a better understanding of what robotics and automation technician program looks like, can you briefly explain the career opportunity for robotics and automation technicians?
Muhammad Laghari: Yeah. Just to add up a little bit on the previous question as well—when they’re working with the coding or, as you said, the programming of the control elements, or mechanical or electrical, there is a whole depth of knowledge that goes into it. And one of the key things that we focus on is, of course, how to do these things and how to program something or how to wire something. But also, why would you do it at a certain point? That is a really important element for our students and our school is how and why would you make a decision to do this or that? Now coming back to the topic of the job opportunities, there are—because, as Maggie mentioned, it is a very diverse field, there are many different job applications that people can go to. Most commonly, we see people going towards field service technician, shop technician, service technician, maintenance technicians, robot technicians. We have had some students which have been hired as control technicians and/or service technicians and even some as engineers straight out of the school. And the fields they work at are very wide. Some people might be working with robots, whereas others might be working with maintaining mechanical elements and others might still yet be working with instrumentation or sensors.
Bob: Hey, Maggie. Bob again. Can you talk a little bit about the demand? The forecast? What you’re looking at? Maybe what the Department of Labor or the State of Michigan says are going to be job opportunities in this area?
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. So, the Bureau of Labor Statistics specifically says for a robotics technician, it’s projected as three percent growth between 2018 and 2028 in Michigan alone. Now, this being an industry in a department that finds itself really kind of sinking its fingers into so many areas. If we look up maybe a different title on the BLS website of installation, maintenance, and repair workers, the growth is six to seven percent. Now, many of those openings are to either replace people moving out of the field, retiring. But a lot of it is automation finding itself in a variety of situations. So automotive has been a huge player for industrial robotics for years, but we’re seeing a lot of other industries, like metal industries, as well as food and beverage stuff, into the field of robotics and automation.
Bob: So, it’s pretty diverse. The opportunity is diverse.
Maggie: Yeah. It’s diverse. It’s growing. Like I said, automation has always been a big player, but we’re finding automated solutions for so many different industries, whether it be factory automation, process automation, etc.
Bob: Got you. Got you.
Lee: What would be an example of automation in the food and beverage industry, like you mentioned?
Maggie: Food packaging. So as food is prepped and prepared in order to take that—or even medical supplies, finding it in packages, either small batch sizes, high variety, so kind of high mix—or sorry, yeah, high mix, low volume of goods that need to find themselves into packages. What used to be people packaging these—with labor costs going up, as well as labor shortages, in order to save these jobs from making it overseas, companies are investing in industrial robots, as well as automation as a whole, depending on what kind of job it is that they’re looking at. Having—even uncaged robot, what we call collaborative robots or cobots—having these job applications for robots to adapt and package these goods and service—or these goods into what we’re seeing on the shelves. There’s a company—and I don’t know how much I can speak on this in particular, but when I was doing my robotics training, however, many years ago, Tyson Chicken was actually just starting their automation. A variety of their workers were in the same class as me, and they were just starting to step into robotics and robot programming. Now, I haven’t talked with Tyson or studied them, but that is a huge company that’s just starting to step into what automation—specifically industrial robots—would look like in their facilities.
Lee: Yeah. And I can imagine that having someone who is a technician who knows how to work on those machines is vitally important if the company is relying on those machines to do the level of output like you’re talking about.
Maggie: Absolutely. I think historically, people have looked at robots and automation as a whole, saying that, “It’s going to take my job.” But we’re giving robots jobs that are dull, dirty, and dangerous. Things that are very repetitive are what we’re having robots do. So, jobs that we don’t want to do anyways or that are making their ways overseas for lighter labor costs. We’re now having robots take the place of this. And this opens up a whole new field of technicians that are necessary in order to program, maintain, install all of the automated systems that are making their ways in all these industries.
Bob: Muhammad, a real quick question. A little bit off, but not totally. Is it being driven—these changes, this diversification—is it being driven by the automobile industry and what they’ve done? Is that what you’re seeing? They’ve taken this on so much that now the related manufacturing functions are now going [inaudible].
Muhammad: So, Bob, it’s primarily been driven by the lower cost of entry into this. It used to be prohibitively expensive to do any automation. Even ten years ago, robots were prohibitively expensive. And the labor to run them was also prohibitively expensive. As more people are learning this, it’s becoming more accessible. Companies are making more versions of it—or cheaper versions of it—so people can get into this automation and robotics both. I remember a PLC would cost you upwards of—just the brain of a PLC, which is actually a component used in automation—would be, even if you want to learn it, it’s $2,000–$3,000. But now if you want to learn it, you can get $200–$300 a PLC. You can buy it to learn it. So, the bar of entry is lowered because of the cost coming down and that allowed more people to learn it. So, technicians would learn it even though they didn’t really need it, and they would step into companies, and they would be like, “Oh, this process that you’re doing? We can do this better with automation.” And that led the diversification of it. It is definitely the people leading it who have learned it, and the cost of entry coming down with it.
Bob: So, it’s almost like an economy of scale. As you get more and more of it, it drives down the cost, so it becomes more reasonable to implement it.
Muhammad: Exactly. But in the same loop that includes a huge demand that builds a massive demand for people to now maintain and upkeep those systems.
Bob: So, it’s really interesting. I know MIAT a little bit. It’s really interesting. You’re located right between—the campus we’re talking to here is located right between Detroit and right between Ann Arbor, which is almost like two different worlds. Meaning you have the old manufacturing that’s trying to reboot, reshape, reformulate, and you’ve got this dynamic university environment that’s generating all kinds of technology I’m guessing. So, you’re kind of in the middle of it, right? You’re kind of getting hit on both sides, for lack of a better way of putting it.
Maggie: Absolutely. And I would say southeast Michigan as a whole has a huge presence of manufacturing. We’re really—a lot of the original equipment manufacturers, the OEMs around us, they’re all within an hour’s reach. And a lot of them is the headquarters for the whole entire United States. There are so many companies that we can take our students to on field trips where we’re exposing them to what it’s like in the industry. And it’s the headquarters for the United States is all within an hour’s drive. And I can think of, I would say, ten, twelve off the top of my head. So, we’re really lucky with where we’re placed and how much manufacturing has a presence in this direct area.
Lee: Very cool. [crosstalk]
Bob: Yeah, I think it’s very exciting for the right kind of individual. One he or she that’s motivated with working with robotic kind of—or automation—this might be a great school to be looking at, or a great opportunity. Am I right or am I stretching it a little bit?
Muhammad: I think you’re 100% right there. As I was mentioning earlier as well, the opportunities externally are very strong, as you mentioned, because you get access to a lot of automotive and, as Maggie said, OEM manufacturers too. Again, on top of that [inaudible] takes a lot of pride in the way we support our students who go through this. It’s a matter of pride for myself and Maggie and our entire team the way we support our students in making sure that they understand the hows and the whys of what they’re doing. Our students, when they flip into the field, we take pride in the fact that they can become very productive very quickly for the company.
Lee: Well, let’s talk about the length of the program. Let’s say that I’m listening to this and I’m interested in a robotics and automation program. How long is the certificate program? Do you offer an associate degree program in that? And is it safe to say, with the right certification, that someone can enter this field without the need of a bachelor’s degree?
Maggie: So here at MIAT, our robotics and automation program, for the certificate alone, is twelve months. And that’s twelve months of technical classes. This is an accelerated program. So, it’s both didactic as well as a lot of hands-on hours because it is accelerated curriculum. Now, you can go out into the field with just a certificate. You have certificates across the board with the whole department as well as in each class. It shows what skills you learned. And the classes we run are particularly designed for the skills that you’re going to need out in the field. Now, twelve months of that—you may not use every single one of them, but you’re going to be exposed to every single one of them. And I would say that kind of the birth of why we chose twelve months and the curriculum that we did is because the industry needed someone who wasn’t just electrical, wasn’t just mechanical, and wasn’t just programming—that was exposed to the system as a whole and how it all relates. So, they can start to troubleshoot and look at the system in a larger picture. Now, you can graduate from the certificate program and make it out in the field and do well without an associate’s or a bachelor’s. However, we strongly advise at least having an associate’s degree so you’re able to move up into the field into more management positions. A lot of companies would like you to have at least an associate’s degree.
What we see with even a lot of the companies that we’re working with that are hiring engineers from our department—a job title that historically has required a bachelor’s degree. Now, we’re not saying you’re going to leave here and absolutely be an engineer, but that is something that we’re finding is more and more available. With this field, we’re training technicians with a hands-on approach so they can leave here with some of those job titles Muhammad mentioned earlier—a maintenance technician, a service technician, a controls technician, etc. The companies that we’re working with don’t require a bachelor’s degree. And what they like about our school is that we’re doing a very straightforward curriculum that is more focused and very hands-on. And we’ve gotten a lot of feedback because we work with our employers very regularly. We actually meet a number of times a year—it’s part of our accreditation to do so—is we’re looking at how prepared our students are for the field, and then we critique and update our curriculum to be so relevant with the technology as well as with the skills that are required by our students graduating into those positions.
Bob: So, I heard a couple of very good points here, Maggie and Muhammad—either one of you that want to jump in. So, taking off on Lee’s question, which is, “I’m a student. I’m interested. Tell me what I should be looking for in a school.” Just for a moment, imagine you’re the parent or you’re a significant other and they’re looking at schools and they’re looking at a variety of different options. What is unique about MIAT or why is this a good possible fit for a little Bobby here? Little me? [laughter]
Muhammad: So everybody may go to—everybody chooses to go to school for different reasons. For some, it is just, “Oh. I’ve just done with my high school, I need to go to school.” For some, it’s that career change that they might be looking for. Everybody has slightly different reasons. We can tell you one of the things that every school should offer—and we really, again, pride ourselves on that—is the student support that we provide. Technically. So, Maggie has done this. I have done this. We normally sit outside of our class time supporting our students technically to get them through whatever they need to go through. For my sake, if I was looking at a school right now, the biggest thing I would look at is how they they’ll be willing to support me in making me move forward in my career. Because if I go to a school right now, it is for a career. A career enhancement or a career change—most likely that is why I’m going to school.
So, how does my school support me in that? Maybe my career needs me to do a lot of programming. I’ve never done programming before. How does my school make me go through that? Make me enhance that, I’m not really good at programming, now what do they do? Do they support me, do they work with me? One. Second thing is, how do they—once I’m done studying with them, how do they support me in getting a job? Do they have career services? Do they help me write a resume? I haven’t done this before, so how do they support me? And then also, how flexible are they to support as life is happening? We all have to be very flexible in COVID. So, life happens to me. Are they going to kick me out because life happened to me? Are they not going to be there for me? That for me, if I bundle what I look for, it’s that support.
Bob: So, you’re defining support—everything from study skills, skill upgrades, and enhancement—but I think, more importantly, which you said, I think—I don’t want to put words in your mouth—is that employer relationship. So, I’m assuming—tell me a little bit, Maggie, tell us a little bit about your relationships with employers. You talked about how—I think you said they review a curriculum on an ongoing basis. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be—are you going to help my son or my daughter get a job? Is that job going to be with an employer that I want to be with? And how do you help do that?
Maggie: So, with our school, and in the accrediting body that we work with, we’re required to report on our placement rate. So, we are required to get our jobs—70% of our students, we have to get them jobs in a relevant field within two years after they graduate. So, when they’re done with their curriculum, and they’re graduating from here—a very proud moment for us as instructors—when they graduate from here, most of our students will leave here already set up with a job, or within the next two years, will have a job out in that field. And we work very closely with a dynamic network of employers that sit on what’s called our advisory board. We sit with them a couple times a year. We review our curriculum, we talk about lab projects, and they tell us what’s going on in the field. Especially a field like this, with robotics and automation, something that’s happening now with use cases that are going on at this moment. We have to stay incredibly relevant. And to see the different manufacturing practices that are going on, to see how or what these companies are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, how they’re adapting to supply chain problems, how they’re adapting to issues with staffing, how they’re adapting to a technology being more widely available. Use cases for vision systems, artificial intelligence, and all these things going on around us. And so, we have to maintain curriculum that is up to date. And then that’s adapting with the field as a whole. And so that’s something we take a lot of pride in.
We also have to maintain our retention. So, we have to hold a certain amount of our students in from when they enroll until when they graduate. And there’s a lot of schools out there that don’t have to do that. And that’s a big reason why I think Muhammad and I were attracted to this school very early on, is because our small class sizes, how in-depth we work with our students, and then our industry partners. Which is something we really pride ourselves in here, at MIAT.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah, all great points. And Maggie, Muhammad—a lot of our listeners that listen to this podcast are high school counselors who may be helping identify an individual that would be a good fit for this type of a career path. Do you have two to three personality traits that you see as educators that make a good robotics and automation technician that might help identify people to be a good fit for this career?
Maggie: Muhammad, I’ll let you go for this one. This is your favorite.
Muhammad: So generally speaking, anything to do with engineering. A student who is good in maths and physics would excel in this. I’ve personally noticed the students who keep asking, “But why?” are generally very good at it. Because they get to the root of the concept. Again, furthermore, a personality trait, if you are a student and as a counselor, you notice the students talk to you in-depth about every single step. “Hey, I woke up in the morning. I did this and I did that.” Those sort of students make really good programmers.
Lee: Interesting. Why do you think that is?
Muhammad: Well, we call these programming machines smart machines, but actually, they are smart because the programmers make them smart. So actually, the machines are really, really unintelligent. So, you have to tell them. So, for instance, if I was to say, “Hey, Bob, can you get me a glass of water?” And we both understand glass of water. Bob knows: go to kitchen, get the glass of water. But when you’re talking to a machine, you’ve got to talk to it like, “Stand up. Turn around. Take a step forward. Take another step forward. Take another.” and then direct them to the glass of water. So, people who are very pedantic in their knowledge or how they apply their knowledge generally make good programmers. Yeah, that was [crosstalk]—
Bob: So inquisitive. Just by their very nature, they’re inquisitive and they’re problem-solving type individuals that look at—is group dynamic important? Is it important to be able to work in a group dynamic?
Muhammad: Social skills are super important because, essentially, you learn from people in this field. They give you all the basics. When you go into the industry, they tell you what they need from you exactly. And you’re not able to communicate with people—let’s say Lee’s machine is not working. I go there. I cannot communicate with Lee, now the problem is exacerbated. It’s bigger now. But if I can communicate effectively with Lee and reassure him that his machine will be fixed in time, my work is like half now than what it was. So, communication skills are important. But generally, we have seen people with good communication skills coming in. And math, physics, and story problems in math. That’s really, really important. If people are good at story problems in math, they generally understand problems well.
Maggie: Do you like to take apart your equipment when it’s broken or when you just got it? I mean, as a kid, if you’re taking apart equipment to see how it works before you even turn it on and get it started up, those are students that we find are really good with hands-on. Like Muhammad said, they’re asking the question, “Well, why?” They want to dig deeper into it and figure out what’s going on. Those students really excel in our department. And our advisory board really focuses on soft skills, and so communication, professionalism, etc. Skills like that are also a big requirement for this field, especially if you’re in the service industry with field service technicians, maintenance technicians. Because you’re oftentimes representing the brand and you’re going out to different customers to work on the equipment that’s gone down at their facility. So representing the company that you’re working for—if you’re not good with communication or don’t really know where to draw the lines as far as vocabulary that you’re using or you’re having trouble managing your anger, things like that, then I would say that that’s going to be hard for someone to move out in the field and represent that brand.
Bob: Real quick, just for my benefit. You’ve run by—we started to talk to you about certificate programs, which are critically important. Then we migrated up to associate degree. Could you, very quickly, in 30 seconds, to say certificates take approximately so long, then we go up to associates and how long does that take? So people can think about the time application they’re going to have at MIAT.
Maggie: Our certificate program for robotics and automation is twelve months. If you choose to go on to the associate degree program, in total, it will put you at eighteen months. That is six months on top of the certificate program. You have two more advanced technical classes as well as your generic general education courses.
Bob: What differentiates MIAT from all the other technical schools that are around in the Detroit metropolitan area? Why should I—why go to MIAT and not go to a community college?
Maggie: Because Muhammad gets to be your programming teacher. [laughter]
Muhammad: It is the people, for sure.
Maggie: Yeah, I would say the people make a big difference. Our instructional staff is great. I’m somewhat biased, but our instructional staff is great. Our classroom sizes are very small. Right now, I have five students in our class. We have really good hands-on equipment. And I would say our relationship both from when you start as a student, all the way until when you’re a graduate, you’re making it in the field, and then you give me a call and tell me, “This is a great place. I need to hire three more students. Well, let’s take a field trip out there.” I would say the network of connections that we find in this school is really unlike any other school I’ve been to.
Lee: That’s a great point.
Bob: Well put. Well put. Well put. Lee, did we cover everything with these guys?
Lee: I think so, yeah. I think we did.
Bob: Hey, we want to thank you guys for joining us today. This has been fantastic.