Pittsburgh Technical College and Aurora partner to create program in autonomous engineering

By Noelle Mateer, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Pittsburgh Technical College has partnered with Pittsburgh self-driving vehicle developer Aurora to create a program seen in few other schools: an 18-month degree in robotics and autonomous engineering designed to train Service Engineer Technicians (SET), or as they call them, the “doers” that power autonomous industries.

“It’s one of the first of its type,” said Alicia Harvey-Smith, Pittsburgh Technical College president, who said the program aims to “create the best possible technician to work not only in the autonomous vehicle space, but in other spaces that engage around electronics and robotics.”

Although PTC was already offering courses in robotics, creating a new program dedicated to autonomous technologies was Aurora’s idea.

In its initial development phases, the company has relied on employees with advanced engineering and technological backgrounds. But in order to scale, Aurora, and other autonomous vehicle companies like it, will need more SETs to work hands-on with the vehicles because self-driving cars aren’t self-maintaining — at least not yet.

“Not everyone’s going to have a Ph.D. from CMU in software engineering, right?” said Matt Blackburn, Aurora’s senior manager of government relations. “So there’s lots of different points where people can enter into this space, and this is one of them.”

The skills required to work on autonomous vehicles are different from those needed for other cars. SETs will build and repair cars, change their sensors, do the wiring, download their software, track the cars and collect their data.

“They’re the ones that pick up the wrenches and cut the wires and connect up the laptops and stuff. They’re the ones that are actually hands-on,” said Dave Becker, the program’s academic chair.

Partnering with an educational institute is a smart move for Aurora, which suffers from the public perception that autonomous technology will take away job options — not add to them.

“It comes up a lot,” Mr. Blackburn said.

But Aurora’s stance is that, in Pittsburgh anyway, the city’s status as a growing autonomous hub has added jobs, not subtracted them. A 2021 Labor Impact Study — partially funded by Aurora — from the Regional Industrial Development Corporation found that Pittsburgh’s autonomy sector has created over 6,300 jobs in the region.

“We are creating jobs that did not exist in Pittsburgh a few years ago,” Mr. Blackburn said.

Autonomous vehicles haven’t taken away many jobs yet because the technology has yet to be deployed on a mass scale. The move to create more technicians signals a forthcoming shift, as the industry begins to transition out of the theoretical and into the marketplace.

That’s why job predictions for the future, while still just hypothetical, are less rosy. If and when autonomous vehicles hit peak saturation, the U.S. could see losses of up to 300,000 professional driving jobs a year, according to a May 2017 report by Goldman Sachs.

PTC’s program starts this fall and combines several courses PTC was already offering, including its robotics courses, with a few new additions and autonomous industry days, which take students to tour workplaces (including, of course, Aurora).

Ms. Harvey-Smith and Mr. Becker noted that it’s not just self-driving companies that need technicians, pointing out that everyone from health care providers to manufacturing centers are automating. Not to mention, Aurora isn’t the only autonomous vehicle company around, and graduates could wind up at other local developers like Locomation or Argo AI.

“People tend to forget that Pittsburgh is where the AV industry really started,” Mr. Blackburn said. “We’re called the robotics capital of the country.”

For the students at Pittsburgh Technical College, the school’s robotics offerings are a way to be prepared for whatever job market shakeups increased automation could bring.

Jay Glaus, a student, said the school’s robotics offerings make him feel more prepared for an industry “in its infancy.”

“We’re in the opening credits of it, if you will,” he said.