The future of work can still be human, if coding camps like this can make it more female

Photo courtesy of UC Davis
Middle-school girls learn to code a camp at UC Davis.

It’s becoming a mainstream resignation that robots are going to put humans out of work, but only if we do nothing about it. In recent decades, manufacturers have introduced automation to fill gaps in the blue-collar labor force, a prophecy self-fulfilled. With some analysts predicting unmet demand of 2.4 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade, there’s opportunity yet for homosapiens to fight back. But right now, we’re doing it with one hand tied behind our collective back, observes Lafayette Parish School System robotics instructor Philip Ryland.

Today, women hold more than half of all post-secondary degrees but account for around 29% of the manufacturing workforce and 18% of computer science jobs, according to national consulting firm Deloitte, with little explanation for the phenomenon other than culture and perception. That’s why Ryland is developing a Girls Can STEM camp this summer, a program designed to encourage middle-school girls to move into computer science and robotics.

“We are missing one of the biggest resources,” Ryland says of the lack of women in the nation’s coding and robotics workforce. Years ago, more high school girls were taking his computer science classes, mirroring the even split in subjects like AP Calculus. There are years where he teaches only boys, pegging the number of girls taking AP Computer Science at around 2%. “We lost them along the way,” he says.  

Ryland runs the robotics and coding program at the W.D. and Mary Baker Smith Career Center, a vocational track campus that’s part of the Lafayette Parish School System. Girls Can STEM, held at the I-Tech Center at Smith, will teach girls to program and build small robots, mentored by Ryland’s Ramaggedon robotics team, an outfit that competes nationally.

From Ryland’s viewpoint, camps like Girls Can STEM and the co-ed camp that follows it are part of addressing a growing shortfall in the manufacturing workforce. Introducing the opportunity to girls creates a more robust workforce to plug into an expanding part of the economy.


Girls Can STEM runs July 22 – 26. Robotics STEM Camp runs July 29 – August 2. For more information or to register your child visit lafayetteparentsforeducation.org/STEM


Yes, economists have warned of dire crashes in employment related to the rise of artificial intelligence, particularly among low-skilled jobs. And that problem is pronounced in Louisiana where efficiencies in the oil and gas industry, in part driven by declining prices, have displaced traditionally solid, blue-collar jobs. Cashiers, one of Louisiana’s most common jobs and one most often held by women, face a 90% likelihood of automation, according to the United Way’s ALICE report. The specter of disappearing opportunity, given the proliferation of smart machines on factory floors, seems understandably real.

A Deloitte manufacturing employment report predicts that 47% of today’s jobs will be displaced by automation over the next decade but finds that overall employment demand will increase, fueled by the need for people to work with the machines. Without filling that gap, Deloitte’s white paper reports, the nation could lose hundreds of billions of dollars in GDP.

That jibes with Ryland’s view. Devices like robot vacuums (mine is terrible) are already abundant and rapidly proliferating, he says, and someone will have to code them, repair them and improve them, he says.

Targeting female participation, then, isn’t just about the moral call to gender equity. Rather, Ryland’s program and national efforts like Girls Who Code are putting together an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving a major problem for the nation’s manufacturers.

That there’s hope for mankind in robotics flies in the face of some conventional fears about automation. But manufacturers have observed the trend for years.

“People who think that robots are taking jobs have it backwards. The lack of people have pushed companies to automate,” says Missy Rogers, CEO of Noble Plastics, a Grand Coteau-based plastics manufacturer that also designs and sells robots and automation systems for other companies.

Rogers says cultural attitudes toward blue-collar work have warded off students from what are abundant and often good-paying jobs, regardless of gender. In her mind, filling this gap has less to do with fixing a deck stacked against women in the workforce than fixing one set against manufacturing careers as a whole. Families posture the four-year college and the white-collar career as the only acceptable ends of education. Meanwhile, the number of industrial robots sold annually in the U.S. is expected to double to 630,000 by 2021, she says.

“What’s the first step? Stop calling them nontraditional careers,” she says. “Hey kids of whatever gender you are. Who’s got spatial skills? You should be a programmer, an architect, a machinist, an automation technician. You see in three dimensions.”

Another way of looking at Girls Can STEM, in that respect, is as a tool for normalizing career paths that fell out of favor among American families. Introducing girls to coding and robotics is just a way of preparing kids for a work future that would otherwise seem bleak.

Girls Can STEM runs July 22 – 26. Robotics STEM Camp runs July 29 – August 2. For more information or to register your child visit lafayetteparentsforeducation.org/STEM

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About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

One Comment

  1. Blaise M. Sonnier June 19, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    While I understand that politician often give into failing to do the right thing in order to get reelected, it is nevertheless disappointing when someone blatantly admits their lack of courage to do what they admit is the right thing. The excuse for failing to vote for the resolution is the same given in the 1960s by those opposed to equal rights and treatment for African Americans. It is the reason the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in and force state and local governments to do the right thing.

    The reason our country is in its current condition is that getting re-elected in more important than doing the right thing. Observing from afar, I was liking what I was seeing with this Councilperson and hoping for a future leader for the community with courage to do the right thing. I guess it is better to have no expectations — then you cannot be disappointed.

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