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Get smart

With smart technology already revolutionising how we live, we take a look at some of the smart tech courses beginning to appear as well as career opportunities revolving around smart sectors.

In the not too distant future life will be exactly like I Robot – but with one major change. Instead of an anthropomorphic bot catering to our every whim smart technology will be the servant – of our entire lifestyle. So with the revolution already rolling what are your chances of getting ahead of the game?

Smart technology is well on its way to revolutionising our homes and spurring governments to spend billions on transforming their country’s infrastructure.

In turn tech-savvy infrastructure is prompting new initiatives among construction giants and tech powerhouses. Futuristic cities mean investment in and development of technologically superior equipment, building materials and productivity saving tools, and more globally competitive jobs in the smart IT sector.

A recent study by the International Data Corporation predicted that the IT industry will create 5.8 million new jobs and more than 75,000 new businesses over the next four years. The green economy is also fast becoming an area of massive opportunity with smart power and huge growth work in the renewable energy arena.  

Are universities keeping up by providing students with smart tech skills?

But while this melting pot of smart opportunity is already on the boil are our universities keeping up?

“It really depends on the university as to how much smart technology is taught”, says Phil Bridges, engineering network consultant at Cisco. “The traditional red brick universities tend to have more theory courses that probably don’t change much given the average course is three years and technology is changing so rapidly. Conversely many of the ex-polytechnic establishments now run courses that are specifically tailored to getting jobs with large corporations.”  

Networking giant Cisco has a European graduate programme that takes about 25 people annually. Bridges studied maths, electronics, computing, chemistry and university computer networking at Birmingham City University. After graduating he joined the Cisco graduate scheme and chose the associate Network Consulting Engineer (aNCE) programme.

“I’d already done a lot of the Cisco training on my course – so when I came for interview I had a definite advantage,” Bridges says.

Another university that is actively championing smart technology courses is Coventry. In 2011, Yuri Vershinin, senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Automotive Engineering, took part in the launch of Research that Matters, an evaluation of university research funding in the UK organised by the House of Commons.

“The aim was to demonstrate some of the excellent results obtained in modern UK universities and to lobby the new government to increase the research budget for new universities,” he explains.

A rise in smart tech education

Part of Vershinin’s remit is to organise new modules and courses. His intelligent transport systems module for final year students on the automotive engineering course, which includes designing an autonomous car, began with 20 students and in four years has risen to 75.

Vershinin’s students are also working on building automation and intelligent building projects, the aim of which is to design, build and implement remote controlled laboratories which can be used for distance teaching in educational establishments.

“The Web-based Interactive Remote Laboratory monitors the environment in Coventry University’s New Engineering Building (NEB),” Vershinin explains. “From September 2012 all teaching activities of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing will take place in the NEB. We are planning to install systems designed by students to monitor air temperature and humidity, lighting conditions, energy consumption etc via the Internet.”

Business partners

Other universities like Bournemouth have established dedicated smart technology research centres, which collaborate with business and industrial partners like BT, Lufthansa and Siemens to provide expertise in a host of systems from cognitive systems to intelligent information retrieval to sonar technology.

But despite that certain universities are keeping up with the Jetsons there is still a big skill shortage and many companies are finding it difficult to find qualified candidates. To combat this many have introduced specific apprenticeship programmes.

Stuart Norcott, design manager at Assa Abloy UK is a firm believer in apprenticeship schemes.

“You tend to get junior guys doing apprenticeships so you know you’ve got to spend time training them – then you get graduates who’ve got the degree and all the theory – but no vocational experience,” Norcott explains.

Assa Abloy, purveyors of smart locking systems, runs an apprenticeship scheme combined with an engineering sandwich course. Norcott, who came to the company having completed an engineering craft apprenticeship and a BEng, studied for his master’s in engineering/product design on a part-time basis.

“On my master’s I learned quite a bit about smart technology – it opened my eyes to new research, different materials and processes and to think more outside the box when developing solutions for our future technology,” he says. “From a ‘smart’ perspective an apprenticeship combined with a sandwich course is a great way to earn and learn.”

Considered becoming a technology scout?

Another upcoming smart area that requires an array of transferrable skills is that of the technology scout. Companies looking to make smart technology developments need to know what’s available, their own internal capabilities, the external environment and ways they can make their go-to-market products quickly. It's the job of the technology scout to identify solutions by utilising their own lateral thinking - and research tools such as Elsevier’s Illumin8 that uses semantic technology to organise these insights as efficiently as possible.

“Our technology scouts come from a pretty varied science background – chemical or mechanical engineering, and computer and IT,” explains Jennifer Hirano, Illumin8’s product manager.

What the smart tech companies are looking for

“In terms of smart training – university wise it’s a mixed bag. It also varies from company to company,” Hirano continues. “Some are looking for people who can really help themselves, some are looking for newcomers that already have a lot of technical expertise who can immediately take advantage of the company’s capabilities.

“I think it’s wise to focus on rapidly growing areas such as sustainability and nanotechnology which require a vast amount of capability,” she highlights. “For a technology scout it’s always a question of ‘what can I do to make this product better?’ If you come from an engineering background there’s a lot of opportunity to look at the world today and ask how to make products and processes more sustainable, as well as smaller and more efficient.”

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