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The robots are coming! Wanted: People to fix robots

Pat Pritchard stood before a group of students at Green River College in Kent. He told his students that he doesn’t train them to be grunts, because what we need from workers is changing.

“Simple grunt labor is going away," he said. "Because the robots are coming. The robots, just like this little robot here, are doing the simple basic tasks. Now they need people who can operate, maintain and repair the robots.”

This was not a heavily structured class. Pritchard set a robot on a table, and a few students started playing with it. Nick Huber tried to get a mechanical arm to place a plastic canister on a block. “If I start here, just like this – open the grip a little bit ... and …”

“What are you trying to do?” one of the instructors asked.

“I’m just trying to program it,” Huber said.

Pritchard wants his students to be able to fix a robot they've never seen before. “You need to think about being a machine doctor,” he said.

There will be thousands of new jobs for so-called machine doctors coming to Washington state in the next few years. In contrast, the number of "button pushers" – people who do repetitive tasks – is declining. That's because those jobs can theoretically be done by a robot, from stocking warehouses to creating airplane parts.

Many lower skilled workers would like to become machine doctors. But the path ahead is tough.

Take Tiffany Thompson, who lives in the Kent Valley and works in mechanical assembly at a company called Orion. She puts stuff together, like hydraulic pumps used in airplanes.

Thompson said she considers this job the first step on a longer path. “I hope to find a career through this,” she said. Right now, she’s at the start of that path.

For example, when the equipment she relies on breaks down, she has to call on a specialist to fix it because she’s not a machine doctor.

She’s come a long way from a few years ago when she was almost homeless and hooked on heroin. “It completely took over my life," she said. "I was no longer a functioning human being.”

Orion, a nonprofit that makes airplane parts, helps people with life barriers like addiction return to the workforce.

Thompson’s success at Orion has inspired her to dream bigger. “Boeing," she said. "That would be awesome, to get into Boeing.” Boeing is in a layoff cycle, now. But the long term prospects for higher-skilled workers are bright.

Thompson went to night school after work, but between school, work, Narcotics Anonymous and an inconvenient bus schedule, her life exhausted her. She had only six hours to herself at home. "My sleeping at night was really short," she said. "I wasn’t getting the rest that I needed.”

Thompson had to make a tough decision. “I let school go temporarily for now, because I need financial income.”

Incomes are rising in Kent but mostly for people with skills. People lower on the ladder have trouble getting the training that would earn them more money.

There’s not much help for them, said Shannon Matson, who runs a program that trains people for the aviation industry in Renton. She said people who are out of work can get help, but people who want better jobs are on their own.

“We have a whole host of people, especially in South King County, who are low-income working adults," she said. "They are working by definition, therefore we don’t worry about them as much. Yet those are the people that I worry about the most, because they need to go back and get training and get better jobs.”

Matson said we need to make it more convenient for people to get to class — and pay for it. Night classes aren’t enough, she said. If we don’t make those changes, she said people will have to choose between jobs and school, or food and school. People who face those choices can’t rise out of poverty.

“They kind of stay at that economic level," she said. "That subsistence level. And they rely very heavily on human services or public services to make ends meet.”

These days, the path from low-income families into the middle class is narrow. It takes a big personal investment in education to get a better job.

Luke Muñoz has been trying to make that leap in Kent. He’s one of four kids; his mom is a single mother who lives on government assistance.

Muñoz wanted a different life. But his $13 an hour job stacking lumber and loading trucks at Home Depot wasn’t getting him there. "I just felt like I could be doing so much more for them," he said.

Muñoz signed up for a mechatronics course at Green River College, the class with the robots. Here, he would learn how to think about how modern machines break down. Such machines could include hardware, hydraulic hoses and software. An error could occur in any of these systems, and Muñoz needed to understand how they worked together.

He had a generous uncle who gave him a quiet room to stay. A place away from noisy siblings, where he could study.

Now he’s on his way to becoming a machine doctor. His skills already got him a $2 raise at Home Depot, where he became the tool repair guy.

"I just kept on telling them, 'Hey, I know how to fix all this stuff,'" he said. Home Depot gave him a chance, and it stuck. He loves puzzling over a broken tool.

“Eventually, something just clicks," he said. "Then you hear that electric motor, you hear that engine start – and you’re just like ‘Oh my! It started!’ And you feel such a sense of accomplishment inside."

The answer to Muñoz’s problem was a room of his own, thanks to his uncle. Now, his ambitions are set higher — maybe Blue Origin, which makes rockets, or another aerospace company.

Basically, any place with robots he can fix.

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