Technology: The Ford Moment for Windsor-Essex Youth

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One-hundred-and-ten years ago, Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company of Canada in Windsor, Ontario.  In time, other companies, such as Chryslter and General Motors followed, which accelerated the conversion of Windsor from an agrarian community to the Automotive Capital of Canada.  Yet, there was little about our city’s transition that was predetermined or predestined.


It took an understanding of the long-term trends in manufacturing—as well as a realistic assessment of the risks, assets and opportunities—in order to make the bold decision to invest time and resources in this particular spot on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, at this particular time and in this particular industry.


Luckily for Ford, and for Windsor, the bet paid off in a hundred years of prosperity.


Our youth—much like the early industrialists—are facing their Ford moment when it comes to their education, with the same fundamental question: where to invest time and resources and in what fields?


The fact that Windsor-Essex is struggling through a youth unemployment crisis—hovering around twenty per cent—suggests that our youth and our community are missing the mark in terms of accurately assessing the risks and opportunities of particular career tracks and helping to direct our young people into promising sectors.


We read headlines in The Windsor Star such as “Young Teachers Trying to Survive in a Barren Job Market” (March 21, 2014) that report that nearly half of the 2012 graduates from teacher’s college are unemployed and another one-third are underemployed – which in essence means an uncertain living as a part-time supply teacher.


On the flipside, the Director of the School of Computer Science at the University of Windsor recently told me that his graduates have a one-hundred percent employment record upon graduation.  Some of his most recent grads are making six-figure salaries at Google in California, others are commuting to tech companies in Michigan, while others are launching their own tech startups in Windsor.


And yet the Director has a tough time recruiting students— especially young women—into his program.


The story is the same not just in computer science but the other so-called STEM fields as well—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—which young people are eschewing in favour of less technical fields.  Canada is also not cultivating enough skilled workers to meet demand.  The Conference Board of Canada recently reported that an additional one million skilled workers will be needed by 2020.


Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, told a Canada-US business group not too long ago about the need for Canada to produce more skilled workers, scientists and engineers. “This is in fact in my judgment the biggest challenge our country faces.” Prime Minister Harper continued by adding, “For whatever reason, we know that peoples’ choices, in terms of the education system, tend to lead us to what appears to be a chronic shortage of certain skills. They are skilled trades, scientists and engineers.”


To use the analogy of Henry Ford, too many of our young people in Canada—and in our region—are placing the wrong bets when it comes to their education: investing their time and energy in the wrong shores, the wrong fields, and at the wrong time.


Which brings me to the importance of FIRST Robotics in Windsor and Essex.


FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). It is an international robotics competition for high school and grade school students.


At the high school level, students design and build one-hundred- and- twenty pound robots that compete in an arena, for example, by launching Frisbees two-hundred feet into scoring baskets or climbing ten-foot steel pyramids.  I like to say it is like LeBron James meets General Motors.


Most importantly, the students work hand-in-hand with professional engineers, programmers and skilled workers from companies such as Boeing, Bombardier, Chrysler and Google.


In fact, over 4,000 industry partners support FIRST including well over half of all FORTUNE 500 companies who understand the need to cultivate the next generation of skilled workers, engineers and scientists.


Students who participate in FIRST are twice as likely to graduate from university or college and twice as likely to major in STEM.


Robotics happens to be one of the fastest growing industries and has moved beyond the traditional industrial robots in automotive plants.  So-called service robots assist surgeons in the medical field and help farmers cultivate and harvest vegetables in agriculture.  Drones help firefighters put out forest fires in remote areas.  They also do more mundane things like vacuum carpets at home to free us up for more creative pursuits.


Service robotics is an exciting new field with endless career potential.


More than just an aptitude for robotics, however, FIRST Robotics develops the soft-skills employers are desperately seeking such as collaboration, communication and entrepreneurship.


More than just STEM, each robotics team is run like a business with subcommittees that handle business, graphic design, and public relations in addition to electrical, mechanical and programming. It draws technical and non-technical students and teaches them to work together in a real life project management experience.


WEtech Alliance—a Regional Innovation Centre that works with innovation and tech companies—recognized the challenge and the necessity of directing more young people into the STEM fields and the skilled trades, which is why WEtech spearheaded the expansion of FIRST in Windsor and Essex.


Two years ago, there was one team from the region competing in FIRST Robotics—the Sandwich High School Sabre Bytes Team 772.  We now have 13 high school teams competing and 10 grade school teams competing in the FIRST LEGO League.


In addition, the inaugural Windsor Essex Great Lakes Regional was just hosted at the University of Windsor from April 3-5th that drew fifteen-hundred high school students from across North America, which was really transformative for our community.


Companies such as Valiant, CenterLine, REKO, Brave Controls, NARMCO, and Chrysler are all taking leadership positions by supporting the tournament and the teams financially and by volunteering their employees to serve as mentors.


FIRST brings together industry, the university and the college as partners with our schools and school boards to better prepare our young people for success by understanding the risks and opportunities of a 21st century knowledge economy.


This collaboration points young people to the right shores, to the right fields such as STEM and the skilled trades and emphatically states: invest your time and resources here.


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