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Revenge of the robotics nerds: They’re in demand

FORTUNE — By now, everyone has heard plenty about the dearth of skilled job candidates in high-tech fields like cloud computing and mobile apps. Meanwhile, another skills gap has quietly grown into a yawning chasm. The shortage of people who know how to build, program, maintain, and repair robots has gotten so severe that, in some parts of the country, qualified candidates can practically write their own ticket.

Consider: The number of online help-wanted ads seeking robotics expertise shot up 40% in the first two months of 2012 alone, according to research firm Wanted Analytics.

Demand is particularly strong in the Detroit area, especially for engineers and technicians who can operate the programmable logic controllers, called PLCs, that run whole automatic robot systems on assembly lines and in warehouses.

“I would hire at least 20 more full-time PLC programmers if I could find them,” says Andrew Valentine, an executive at an engineering firm in Lake Orion, Mich., who has worked in robotics and PLC training since the 1980s. Valentine has already hired 16 PLC programmers in the past year, but “it’s hard to compete against the automakers, who soak up 70 to 80% of the scarce talent that’s available.”

The irony there is that the car companies’ travails in 2008 and 2009 are partly responsible for the shortage. When General Motors (GM) and Chrysler went broke and laid off thousands of workers, large numbers of robotics experts left the industry — and Michigan — altogether. “We had a great talent pool here, but they’re in other places doing other things now,” Valentine observes. Even now that hiring has picked up again, he adds, “those people aren’t coming back.”

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Another reason why robotics mavens are so scarce has to do with the nature of the work itself. Lack of a four-year engineering degree isn’t an obstacle to getting hired: The basic skills can be learned in so-called mechatronics programs, which combine specialized programming classes with training in electrical and mechanical engineering. Offered at many colleges and trade schools, the curricula usually take two years to complete. Increasingly, out of desperation, companies are offering this type of training to their current employees.

But once trained and hired, most robotics specialists at engineering firms spend anywhere from two to six months designing and building a system, and then must go with it to the client company that bought it. “The client could be anywhere in the world, and you may have to stay there for two years or more,” Valentine says. “It’s great for a young, single person who likes to travel. But after a while, a lot of people get tired of living out of a suitcase.”

In the Washington, D.C. area, the second hottest U.S. market for robotics talent, “the biggest demand comes from government, especially the Defense Department, but there is a lot of private sector activity too,” says Thomas Crabtree, a senior vice president at consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton. “It’s very competitive.”

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Booz Allen hires robotics experts to work with its military clients on a wide range of projects, from unmanned submarines and aircraft to robots that can dismantle a handmade bomb. To try and ensure a steady stream of talent, the company is taking the long view. It’s a major sponsor of a nonprofit organization called First Robotics that runs workshops and contests designed to get high school kids interested in, and familiar with, robotic technology.

In First Robotics’ annual competitions, going on right now all over the U.S. and in 55 other countries, “the students have six weeks to design, assemble, and test a robot, and there’s a heavy emphasis on teamwork,” says Crabtree. “The program instills the skills and the values we want in our future employees.” By sponsoring First Robotics and building relationships with schools, he adds, “we’re hoping that, when these kids get ready to enter the work world, they’ll think of us.”

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