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Education: Desperately Seeking Photonics Technicians

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Caren B. Les,

Armed with an associate degree in laser and fiber optics technology, a new graduate of Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., could land a job starting at an annual salary of $38,000 to $40,000 as a photonics technician in the manufacturing environment, according to program coordinator Judith Donnelly. That’s with no experience.

Despite the demand for technicians and the generous starting salary, industry companies have had trouble finding qualified photonics technicians. It has been difficult to attract students from the middle 60 percent of achievers to a career in photonics and to begin preparing them for that career before they graduate from high school, said Dan Hull, director of OP-TEC, The National Center for Optics and Photonics Education based in Waco, Texas.

OP-TEC describes itself as a consortium of universities, two-year colleges, high schools, national laboratories, industry partners and professional societies. Funded by the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., the center supports high schools and community colleges in creating a “pipe-line” for students who are qualified and motivated to be technicians in the optics and photonics industries. Graduates of OP-TEC’s eight partner colleges are receiving three to five job offers at salaries from $40,000 to $55,000 annually, Hull said. OP-TEC’s list of colleges nationwide that provide photonics education includes roughly 25 two-year institutions.

Missing the mark

Hull noted that in almost every state there is a major initiative to create STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) high schools or academies. The problem, he said, is that the STEM academies usually try to attract the top 15 to 20 percent of achievers, who are then prepared for bachelor’s degree programs in science and engineering – not for technician programs at community and technical colleges.

A study conducted by OP-TEC five years ago showed that the number of US technical jobs in photonics and photonics-enabled technologies is expected to grow by more than 1800 per year on average through 2009, an annual increase of more than 6 percent. Hull said that the industry is a long way from fulfilling that need. The rapid growth of the photonics industry together with the decreasing number of qualified engineers has resulted in a small pool of qualified personnel. The center is updating its needs study and expects to have new statistics early next year.

A background in mathematics, including algebra, geometry and some trigonometry, is needed to qualify for these jobs, which are abundantly available in Colorado, Florida, California and New Mexico, and also in the Mid-, South- and Northwest regions.

Donnelly said that Three Rivers Community College graduates, many of whom earn dual degrees in laser and fiber optics technology and in electrical engineering, have a broad education and can use a wide variety of test equipment – making them highly sought after in many areas of the industry. She said that recent graduates have taken jobs at companies such as IPG Photonics Corp. in Oxford, Mass., and Trumpf Inc. in Farmington, Conn.

Students get hands-on experience in state-of-the art laser laboratories. Photos courtesy of OP-TEC and Texas State Technical College Waco.

According to Donnelly, part of the difficulty in attracting students to photonics technical work is that students, along with their parents, teachers and guidance counselors, simply do not know that these jobs exist. People are surprised to learn that they could qualify for these jobs at the associate degree level. It’s an uphill battle to get the word out, she said. She also noted that students often think they need a bachelor’s degree to be successful, whereas in many cases, they actually need specific skills. Many often earn a four-year degree and end up with a job that they could have gotten right out of high school, she said.

Several organizations are working hard to educate the public about careers in photonics, including the National Science Foundation’s Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing, based in Hartford, Conn., said Donnelly, who has been involved in many of these efforts. The area’s student chapter of SPIE offers outreach programs to high school students, some of which bring them into the college laboratory.

The EastConn Regional Education Service Center in Hampton, Conn., has offered optics workshops for fifth-graders and professional development for their teachers, with funding from SPIE and the Optical Society of American Foundation. The Boston-based New England Board of Higher Education currently offers its Photon Problem-Based Learning curriculum and professional development project.

Aware that their new campus with new science and technology laboratories is not being filled to capacity, the technology department faculty at Three Rivers Community College would like to see funding for regular outreach to all the high schools in the region. They plan more cooperation with other campus technology programs on projects such as machine vision and laser manufacturing.

Donnelly said she would like to see more support from the industry, adding that other types of employers, including hospitals in need of nurses, have offered incentives such as scholarships, stipends, supplies and internships, and that these programs have always been filled. If the photonics industry is serious about technicians, it needs to do the same, she said.

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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