Business ServicesJune 22, 2022

Can women solve the skills gap in robotics?

Joyce Sidopoulos thinks so. She helped found the Jumpstart Fellowship Program at MassRobotics to provide young women with a pathway to the robotics industry.
Avatar Lindsay James

Around the world, companies are reporting a major shortage of skilled workers. In fact, according to research by McKinsey, 87% of companies say they already have a skills gap, or that they expect to have one in the next few years.

sources: The State of Women in Tech; Zippia; Mashable

While the research finds that most organizations consider it a priority to address skills shortages, few say they really understand how to equip themselves with the skills they will need most. In fact, only a third of respondents say they are able to cope with the workforce disruptions resulting from technology and market trends.

The technology skills gap is a problem being felt even in the most technologically advanced cities. Take Boston, for example, a city dubbed by KPMG as one of the most likely in the world to become the leading technology innovation hub outside of Silicon Valley.

“In Boston, the robotics ecosystem in particular is growing exponentially, but there are simply not enough graduating students educated in STEM fields to fill positions,” said Joyce Sidopoulos, co-founder and vice president of programs and community at Massachusetts-based non-profit organization MassRobotics.

But Sidopoulos has a solution. She believes that the secret to bridging the technology skills gap is a large untapped pool of individuals that have historically failed to see an opportunity in the robotics industry: young women.

‘You Cannot Be What You Cannot See’

“The STEM workforce suffers from a lack of diversity,” Sidopoulos said. “We often hear that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’ That holds true in robotics. There are not many role models and not many peers who are female, especially of Black and Latinx origin.”

Sidopoulos is determined to turn this around. That’s why she helped to create the Jumpstart Fellowship Program – an initiative designed to address the technology skills gap by getting female students excited about robotics, and provide them with the experience they need to consider it as a career path.

A cohort of participants in MassRobotics’ Jumpstart Fellowship Program. The program’s goal is to provide young women of color a direct pathway to transform an interest in STEM into a passion and career in the tech field. (Image courtesy of MassRobotics)

“We want to provide opportunities for diverse high school girls to learn about careers in robotics and develop their professional networks through direct engagement with industry professionals,” Sidopoulos said. “Jumpstart provides technical training in the areas identified by robotics companies who in turn hire the students for internships. They learn in-demand skills such as CAD design, 3D printing, soldering, the use of prototyping hand tools, programming and simulation and project management.”  

The program also offers professional development training, interview preparation and expectations setting. “Throughout the program, not only do participants get a summer internship, but they also take many field trips to robotics companies to get an idea of what it’s like to work at each and a feel for their company culture,” Sidopoulos said.

A Hands-On Approach to Bridging the Skills Gap

This practical experience is proving to be incredibly successful at giving young women confidence in their abilities, so that they are more likely to pursue robotics in their professional careers. But they aren’t the only ones who benefit; it’s also helping robotics companies like GreenSight – a Massachusetts-based aerial intelligence firm – to close the technology skills gap with talented workers while also making a noticeable difference in their diversity goals.  

“To us, the lack of diversity in robotics is an obvious sign that a lot of high-quality talent simply is not able to break into the industry,” said Joel Pedlikin, co-founder and chief operating officer at GreenSight. “Jumpstart is a small but significant way for GreenSight to enlarge its pool of US robotics engineers. Years of experience have taught our company how to make excellent use of engineering co-ops and interns. The Jumpstart interns we’ve hired have made a significant contribution to our business.”

Sidopoulos attribubtes Jumpstart’s success MassRobotics’ commitment to working hand-in-hand with educators and local businesses. “We work with both traditional educators from Boston Public Schools and mentors from after-school programs. Meanwhile, local robotics businesses provide advice on the curriculum and detail the technical skills they are looking for,” she said. “We also ask that our robotics business collaborators provide summer internships with meaningful work and projects so that students feel they’ve accomplished something over their time at the company.”

Technical lessons are taught on Saturdays through most of the school year, as well as five straight days during the February vacation break when students visit those robotics companies who will be hiring summer interns from the program. “The curriculum is taught by a combination of people,” Sidopoulos said. “There’s our STEM manager, our lab manager, a hired contractor for soft skills such as networking, and volunteers from the robotics community, including an engineer from Dassault Systèmes’ SOLIDWORKS brand who teaches several modules. These are mostly taught in-person at MassRobotics, where students can access hand tools, 3D printers and other equipment.”

Building on Success

The pilot was limited to eight students because of COVID. “Following feedback from both students and employers, we have added some new elements to the curriculum,” Sidopoulos said. “We expanded the second cohort to include 17 students and, in May 2022, they completed their technical portion of the program and then headed off to their summer internships.”

MassRobotics’ Jumpstart Fellowship Program works closely with school and local business to understand the technology skills gap and develop training that create a pipeline of you women interesting in working in STEM fields. (Image courtesy of MassRobotics)

Autonodyne, a company creating software for autonomous vehicles, is hosting one of these students.

“This summer, we have a returning participant who is now a rising second-year college student studying engineering,” said Steve Jacobson, the company’s founder and CEO. “She was with us last summer and made a real impact in our developmental engineering and flight test programs, so much so that we were able to bring her back this summer. She, and the Jumpstart program as a whole, have been a great help not just in our product development and therefore bottom line, but also in our efforts to increase our diversity. It feels like a win-win for both the company and the community.”

Of course, students are benefiting too. “Entering the professional world is not easy, but this program has worked with us to make this path a lot easier,” said a student from the second cohort. “It’s creating a safe space where we can share our struggles, accomplishments, works we’re proud of and projects that we wished we did differently.”

Another student praises the program’s efforts around diversity. “It is important for fellowships like this to exist because it creates a space for women of color to bond over their knowledge of STEM,” she said. “Together, my cohort overcame our shyness and worked as one unit to successfully complete a rigorous program.”

MassRobotics is now planning its third cohort for the 2022-2023 school year, hoping to expand to 30 students.

“We will continue to refine our curriculum to match the needs of employers,” Sidopoulos said. “Our goals remain the same: to provide opportunities for diverse Massachusetts high school girls to learn about careers in robotics and develop their professional networks through direct engagement with industry professionals.”

For employers who get involved in programs like Jumpstart and invest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives more broadly, the payoff goes far beyond hitting benchmarks: they realize profound improvements on innovation, productivity and, eventually, their bottom line. As Ayanna Howard wrote in an article for MIT Sloan Management Review, “When organizations describe why diversity matters in the human relations context, even when it’s viewed purely from a business perspective, they usually discuss how different perspectives from a diverse group of people combined together result in better outcomes, better products, and better services. Why should it be any different with robotics?”

Related content:

Stay up to date

Receive monthly updates on content you won’t want to miss


Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.