Teachers Urged to Feed Demand for IoT Workforce

The continued meteoric growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), with billions of connected products worldwide, hinges on a crucial ingredient, speakers said this weekend at the nation’s oldest teachers’ college: a steady supply of developers to build it.

Manufacturers are rushing to add sensors and remote controls to products ranging from tractors to sportswear so their customers can be connected with information about everything from crop yields to heart rates.

“The demand for people who understand this type of technology is going off the charts,” Jim Heppelmann, president and CEO of PTC, told STEM teachers meeting at Framingham State University, Boston. And “it’s not just software companies” that want to hire them, he said. “It’s John Deere. It’s Nike. It’s everybody.”

The IoT could have a $2.3 trillion global economic impact by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, by which time Cisco Systems predicts that 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, up from the current nine billion.

To feed this vast expansion, the already sluggish production of software developers will have to speed up. ABI Research estimates that the number of developers working on the IoT will reach 1.7 million globally by the end of this year, and seven out of 10 information technology managers surveyed in June by Internet security firm Infoblox said they planned to hire more.

ABI predicts that more than three million developers will be needed by 2019—a number equal to 10 percent of all software developers worldwide—at a time when there are already shortfalls in other high-demand fields. Some 200,000 software security jobs in the United States remain unfilled, for instance, according to Boston Consulting Group.

“This is where you come in,” Heppelmann told the middle- and high-school teachers, all of them graduates of a two-year-old certificate program in STEM education that the university offers in collaboration with PTC and the Christa McAuliffe Center for Education & Teaching Excellence, named for the first teacher in space, who got her undergraduate degree at Framingham State.

Developers who can help build the IoT “are expensive and hard to get, and they’re going to get five job offers,” Heppelmann said. “Everybody’s going to want them. There’s a real need for the STEM community to produce a lot more of these people.”

Among other places, the shortfall in the number of workers needed for technology and engineering jobs has been traced to primary and secondary schools. Only 43 percent of high-school graduates are prepared for college-level math, down two percentage points since 2012, and only 37 percent for college-level science, according to the organization that administers the ACT college-entrance exam. That’s one reason American universities are still producing just 100,000 software developers a year when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a need for 150,000.

The number of students who enroll in courses in computer science is down since 1990, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and only 1.4 percent of high-school students take the Advanced Placement test in computer science, the College Board says, compared to 40 percent who take the AP test in English.

The IoT is particularly hard to translate into terms that might make high-school students enthusiastic about it, said Peter Holden, director of a Department of Defense program called Starbase that teaches STEM skills to low-income students.

“Teachers aren’t used to teaching about things that don’t exist yet,” said Holden, who attended the conference. “It’s a new paradigm. It’s not likely to get adopted easily.”

Several organizations with an interest in expanding the supply of qualified developers are working to change that.

One, called code.org—with backing from the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—is pushing a one-hour introduction to computer science that uses games including Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies to lure students into the lessons. It’s also helping to promote Computer Science Education Week, December 8-14.

PTC is creating a relatively low-cost classroom IoT toolkit, which will let students come up with ideas for connected products, design their mechanical parts using PTC Creo software, print them with a 3-D printer, add inexpensive sensors, put together their own monitoring and control applications with PTC’s ThingWorx platform and Axeda dashboard, and communicate with them over the Axeda device cloud. The company is also planning hackathons in Minnesota in collaboration with the University of Minnesota—Heppelmann’s alma mater—and next summer at its suburban Boston headquarters.

“We’re very interested in learning how we can help you get your students jazzed up,” Heppelmann said.

Using himself as an example, he said teachers are essential to increasing the supply of future software developers and other students interested in—and ready for—math, science, and technology careers.

Raised on a dairy farm in “very rural” Minnesota, Heppelmann said, “I probably still would be on that dairy farm milking cows if I hadn’t run into some teachers along the way who introduced me to math and computers.”

Investing in creating engineers, “and maybe doing it by preparing teachers to touch that engineer of the future, we’re creating a lot of goodwill,” he said. “That’s a seed that takes a long time to produce fruit, but eventually it does produce fruit.”

Photo credit: Bruce Mattson