Workforce training is seen as key to maximizing the $63 million grants to boost the robotics and artificial intelligence industries in the region

While the robotics industry in southwestern Pennsylvania has the potential to grow with a targeted federal grant of about $63 million, officials on Monday emphasized the need for a skilled workforce to make that potential for growth a reality.

“This is about our economic future,” said Craig Boyerstat, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for Regional Affairs.

Buerstatte was joined by economic development officials, legislators and private industry leaders who gathered Monday at the Westmoreland Advanced Technology Center at Westmoreland RIDC near New Stanton.

said Stephanie Bachmann, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and chair of the board of the New Economy Collaborative Council of Southwest Pennsylvania who received the grant.

The new organization is a coalition of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and economic development and industry organizations in partnership with manufacturing organizations.

“We have a huge problem in this region creating jobs and the broader region is not taking advantage of this play,” Bachmann said. She noted that most of the robotics and artificial intelligence sector is concentrated in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

“It will create more jobs and more opportunities,” Bachmann said.

To get an idea of ​​the growth in the robotics industry in the region, Carnegie Mellon University professor Parag Batavia, who is also the founder of Neya Systems, said that when he started his robotics business in 2009, there were fewer than 20 companies in the region in the sector. There are now more than 100 companies focusing on defense, mining, agriculture, and other industries.

Batavia said there are more than 3,000 small to medium-sized manufacturers in the region who have the potential to grow in the industry, maintain founding partners and technologies here, and work to solve problems with nationwide impact.

Shawn Curtis, Westmoreland County Commissioner, called the grant “huge” and wanted to make sure the county would be able to share in that growth. Curtis said developing this sector of the economy with the grant could benefit the county because agriculture is the No. 1 industry and manufacturing is No. 3.

“The focus is on skilled labor and crafts,” Curtis said.

Without skilled workers to do the repetitive tasks of process programming and maintenance, companies can’t do this work, said Petra Mitchell, president of Catalyst Connection, a nonprofit that helps with manufacturing. Mitchell said the training is necessary because two-thirds of the companies that employ about 86,000 manufacturing workers in southwestern Pennsylvania are not necessarily connected to artificial intelligence.

Workers with a high school diploma or general equivalent degree can be trained in robotics, an indoor farming operation that uses robots under a 60,000-square-foot surface in a community known for its ancient steel industry—the Braddock and U.S. Edgar plant—Grant Vandenbosch, Senior Class Officer for Season 5. Thomson Steel Corporation.

“It’s a high-tech environment and we’re paying $15, $18, $20 an hour,” Vandenbusch said.

Longtime U.S. Representative Mike Doyle, De Forest Hills, said he’s not running for re-election, he said part of the problem with getting workers to apply for these jobs in robotics and artificial intelligence is that people fear they can’t do the job.

“We have to let them know they can’t do it. We have to get them[in training]otherwise it’s all for nothing,” Doyle said.

“Talent is absolute king in Western Pennsylvania,” said Andrew Wolfling, global head of government relations at Argo AI, which is involved in developing and testing self-driving vehicles at Westmoreland RIDC.

Vince Valdez, president and CEO, Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, said the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission is working with the region’s Workforce Investment Boards and its community colleges to build a workforce for this new technology.

The grant will be distributed to five projects:

• $4.5 million for small and medium-sized businesses to receive assistance in bringing robotics and artificial intelligence to agriculture, manufacturing, construction, energy, and healthcare.

• $24.8 million to train the regional workforce for robotics technology developers and technology adopters.

• $12 million for a startup robotics factory to help new companies focus on robotics and artificial intelligence in various industries

• $6.9 million to increase the pathways of minorities and underrepresented groups and start a minority and women-owned business.

Boerstat said more than 90 public and private groups across 11 counties worked together for the grant.

The economic benefits of this collaboration and grant will extend beyond the Pittsburgh area and into remote rural communities and those areas affected by the downturn in the coal mining industry, once the mainstay of the economy for cities in Westmoreland, Indiana, Fayette, Green. and Washington counties.

“We don’t want this to be just a Pittsburgh ‘thing’, solving problems in Oakland,” said Majestic Lane, chief equity officer at the Allegheny Conference.

Joe Nabcha is a Tribune Review writer. You can contact Joe via email at jnapsha@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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