By Jennifer Read, Editor, EMSNOW

April is a great month for sports fans, with baseball’s opening day, NCAA championships, the end of the regular NHL and NBA regular seasons, the Masters tournament in golf, and the NFL draft.

But another contest happens in April with a lot more significance for the electronics industry in 2018: The Worldwide FIRST® Robotics competition in Houston and then Detroit. If you aren’t aware of the impact of Dean Kamen’s brilliant STEM outreach programs, let me share some of the absolutely jaw-dropping yearly participation numbers:

  • 515,000+ students
  • 59,000 teams
  • 44,700+ robots created
  • 150,000+ mentor/coach/adult supporter roles filled
  • 105,000+ other volunteer roles filled (e.g. event volunteers, affiliate partners, VISTAs)

2018’s FIRST Robotics Competition this month in Houston and Detroit is expected to involve 3,650 teams and 91,000 participants aged 14-18.

Are you involved in this worthwhile community outreach program? Let’s face it, electronics manufacturing has an image problem. Many of our readers complain about the difficulties they have attracting and retaining the bright young engineering graduates getting ready to choose a career. Manufacturing is seen as boring, or worse — unhealthy and dangerous. Few high school or college students have even been to one of the modern factories where electronic products are born – or attended an industry event where electronics industry professionals practice their craft. Engaging in programs like  FIRST® can form lasting positive impressions about how much fun it is to work in electronics hardware careers.

FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

 FIRST®is more than robots. FIRST participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21st century work-life skills.

Many of our industry associations are concerned with the skilled labor shortage, and are encouraging their members to participate in programs to reach out to young people. The Electronics Components Industry Association’s Foundation is one of those. Debbie Conyers is the Foundation’s Executive Director. “ECIA is honored to assist Dean Kamen – inventor, scientist and founder of FIRST®. ECIA worked with our member companies to coordinate the donation of millions of electronic components needed to make team kits for the 2013-2018 competitions.We are currently soliciting for the 2019 build season.”

“ECIA member companies provide support in other ways, too,” Conyers continued. “They mentor teams, sponsor regional competitions and provide direct funding.” When young people see adults they admire and respect who also work in careers in electronic manufacturing, this offsets some of the negative impressions they may have picked up about ‘dirty factories’ or ‘boring’ STEM careers.

Dean Kamen’s quest he says is to “ignite the imaginative minds of our youth and instill a love of science exploration. This wildly successful program has provided a venue for science-minded kids to compete on a level that rivals their athlete peers. Started in 1992 with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high-school gym, the competition now involves over 3,000 teams across the globe vying for bragging rights and college scholarships.”

The ECIA Foundation was awarded special recognition as a FIRST® Alliance member in 2016. At the state/local level, Alliances can have a significant impact in the community by creating more teams, engaging more Mentors, and reaching out to more students. FIRST Alliances:

  • advocate and promote career opportunities in STEM in grades K-12;
  • look to build on existing STEM related programs; and
  • seek ways to engage their memberships in FIRST Mentor/Coach opportunities as a means of workforce development, increased community involvement, and encouraging their employees to give back to the communities

Through this affiliation, ECIA members have access to FIRST alumni groups of enthusiastic young people interested in a variety of STEM related careers.

“ECIA believes this activity has enormous value for its members,” said Conyers. “We spotlight local FIRST teams at our industry events and they get experience presenting their projects, under the guidance of their Team mentor. Our members in turn can reach out to these bright young people and encourage them to consider careers with their organizations, inviting them to apply for internships and so forth. It’s definitely a win-win,” Conyers concluded.

At APEX 2018 this year, IPC CEO John Mitchell eloquently explained the urgency of the skills shortage issue in our industry. He has since posted a video outlining the measures his organization will be taking to address the problem.

Industry can’t wait for governments or universities to solve this problem. It will take a multi-faceted program of training, internships, apprenticeships, STEM outreach, and funding. It will take creativity and innovation. But that’s what this industry does. Sponsoring a FIRST robotics team is one very fun thing that anyone can do right now.