Updated: Jul 2, 2020
The drone industry is growing at an astounding rate and the future job market in the industry could greatly enhance the economic future for many Americans if we make drone-related STEM education accessible to all.
Follow the Money
This past year, I was among the crowds of entrepreneurs walking through the convention centers and event spaces where UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) commercial expos, conferences, and festivals were held in 2019. The biggest of these events took place at the Westgate Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and while the slot machines rolled and roulette tables spun, entrepreneurs at the drone convention were overwhelmed by the sensation that the drone industry could be their chance at hitting the jackpot.
Like other entrepreneurs, I attended these events with the idea of an opportunity I wanted to target in the burgeoning drone industry; however, as I engaged with the drone community and watched the interactions between key influencers and industry executives, the more I realized that the drone industry doesn’t need another startup elbowing its way into one of the already crowded market segments.
At one point during the UAV Convention at the Westgate Hotel and Casino, I stopped networking and took the time to observe everything going on around me. While I took this moment to observe, my underlying thought was, What does the drone industry desperately need?
Preparing for Domestic Drone Industry Growth
The drone industry is growing at an astonishing rate, and the current focal point for most U.S. drone-centric businesses is securing favorable government legislation and FAA regulations to provide a framework for the segment to grow in prominence. With beneficial regulations, market insiders forecast that, “The global market for drone technologies will reach $43.1 billion by 2024, up from $14.1 billion in 2018”. That equates to a compound annual growth rate of 20.5%, easily outpacing CompTIA projections for the overall information technology industry (3-6% increase).”
In robotics and drone hardware alone, “the U.S. represents about 14% of the global market.”
Yet, from a long-term economic standpoint, the list of things the U.S. drone industry will need in order to maximize its potential is much more complex. At UAV gatherings, an issue that dominated conversations between founders and executives was the need for employees with the technological skills required for businesses to develop and compete in the industry. For U.S. drone businesses, “hiring intent increased 183% between 2017 and 2018 according to CompTIA’s analysis of research conducted by Burning Glass Technologies.” What is even more astonishing is that the U.S. employers who posted the 6,200 drone-related job openings in 2018 represent only a fraction of the total global market. In robotics and drone hardware alone, “the U.S. represents about 14% of this global market.”
As I began to piece together drone industry market information, I became increasingly concerned about the small U.S. market share of many drone segments and the long-term implications, especially since drones constitute such an important part of the future of national security and infrastructure maintenance. Although I now understand that a weak U.S. market share in specific drone industry sectors is a symptom of a broader domestic problem that impacts many U.S. entrepreneurs in ventures requiring a workforce with STEM skills.
Throughout UAV gatherings, U.S. based entrepreneurs were networking to find partners to develop ventures; the underlying joke among these entrepreneurs was that the only economically feasible talent came from countries such as Russia, the Czech Republic, and China. For example, in order to pursue the drone venture I was considering without spending a fortune to secure one of the few U.S. based service providers, I would have had to partner with a Russian firm to complete the code and software research and development, and then outsource hardware development and manufacturing to China.
Out of 71 countries, the U.S. placed 38th in math and 24th in science.
My background as an educator led me to research those drone-specific education outlets available to U.S. youth in order to understand why there was such a lack of available domestic talent. Although American Colleges and Universities are developing drone-related instruction at an accelerated rate, the pool of youngsters interested in attending such programs is not representative of our diverse populous.
In order to supply the future U.S. drone industry with the talent needed to keep up with Europe and China, a significant part of the young population must receive exposure to the industry via drone-based STEM education. Although drone-centric STEM programs exist in the U.S., the majority of programs are provided by for-profit companies that charge between $425 and $735 dollars per student, per week. The schools that provide access to these workshops require parents to cover the fee, which prices many students out of what is becoming a prominent area of robotics and technology. As a result, the U.S. drone industry will continue to fall behind international competition because many of the young individuals who would grow up to thrive in drone-based occupations are unable to attend the workshops that would spark their interest in such pursuits.
In reference to the question of why the Gates Foundation focused so intently upon public education, Bill Gates wrote, “Without success in college or career preparation programs, students will have limited economic mobility and fewer opportunities throughout their lives. This threatens not only their economic future but the economic future and competitiveness of the United States.”
The drone industry represents one of the many puzzle pieces of the future global economy; a global economy based on technological advancements and digital infrastructure developments where big data collection will be king. Looking forward, the U.S. is doing a great job of providing education to those individuals who will seek to be the future industry titans, executives, and managers of businesses in AI, UT, VR and other such ventures. However, if the U.S. does not properly develop future employees to fill all roles necessary for corporate mechanisms to operate, who will our future executives and managers lead?
Which begs the question: What is the solution?
It all boils down to one word: Opportunity. Drones represent the opportunity to introduce many different types of people to the skill sets, such as coding, that are essential to STEM - oriented industries of the future. Thus, utilizing the momentum generated by the excitement of the drone industry to capture the interests of young individuals from all backgrounds is crucial to fulfilling the needs of a strong, future U.S. economy.
We cannot look to an already overwhelmed public education system to expose students to the world of drones. In order to provide wide-reaching STEM education for drones and other emerging industries, the cooperation of corporations and entrepreneurs is necessary. Corporations are ready to do their part, offering millions of dollars in education grants to nonprofit entities that are able to generate results. Thus, more entrepreneurs are needed to develop the business models and strategies to implement sustainable drone-centric STEM education programs in areas of the U.S. where they don’t exist. The question for these entrepreneurs is this: Why struggle for position in a crowded room, when you can move freely in uncharted territory?