More Training Will Motivate Future Workforce

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The photonics and optics industries are growing exponentially with continually advancing research and technologies. Such development further motivates advancement, but one glaring challenge remains: The photonics and optics workforces are struggling to keep pace.

Lionel Kimerline
Lionel Kimerling. Courtesy of Aim Photonics.

Industry players, from university professors and engineers to company executives, are now working to bridge the gap between the growing photonics and optics job markets and their lagging numbers of skilled technicians. New initiatives and programs, such as the Optics & Photonics Technology INnovation (OPT IN!) program, target a broad range of potential technicians, and at younger ages, in efforts to populate and strengthen the existing and future workforce.

More programs such as these are needed for next-generation success, according to industry experts. Lionel Kimerling, who leads the Education, Workforce Development and Roadmap division of AIM Photonics — a public-private U.S. manufacturing institute focused on integrated photonics — spoke with Photonics Media about such needs. As the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and founding director of the school’s Microphotonics Center, Kimerling weighs in on the current state of photonics and optics training, the struggling workforce, and what can be done to strengthen it for future success.

Photonics Media (PM): In your view, is academia currently meeting photonics and optics workforce needs? What is and will be needed to do so?

Kimerling: Several universities have strong programs in optics [such as the University of Arizona and the University of Rochester], but learning tracks in integrated photonics are mainly tributaries of research. The community can do more to teach emerging technologies by focusing on three areas:

1. Teach system-level functionality, such as radio frequency sensors, data center, and 3D imaging applications.

2. Emphasize synergistic codesign of photonics and electronics to meet system requirements.

3. Adapt foundry tape-out design skills to learning and training.

The European Union, Canada, and AIM Photonics … have addressed these issues by offering workshops, short courses, and online courses. They are building programs to teach students to use photonics in a foundry environment. To be effective, these efforts must happen with input and feedback from industry. Companies should be motivated to participate in apprenticeships and internships to develop talented workers.

PM: What programs are currently available via AIM Photonics for technician training?

Kimerling: For those with some background in engineering, AIM Photonics offers summer and winter academies in integrated photonics at MIT, and will be introducing edX courses in the fall. It will also post teaching packages that university professors can download so they don’t have to create curriculum from scratch.

In addition, AIM Photonics plans to introduce a technician training program with university and college partners.

AIM Photonics also leads the Integrated Photonics System Roadmap (IPSR), which will include a chapter on workforce development in 2018. A technical working group of academics, government officials, and company representatives will all contribute to the study.

PM: What is being done to attract, populate, and train the next-generation workforce?

Kimerling: Students should learn about opportunities in the field as early as possible. There have been some efforts to develop hobby kits and presentations at science fairs.

AIM Photonics is creating three 5-minute TED-Ed videos that will launch in the fall [2018]. It has a program for rising high school seniors to be placed in research projects at universities. With funding from the commonwealth of Massachusetts, AIM Photonics is rolling out Labs for Education & Application Prototypes (LEAP) at area community colleges, colleges, and universities. All of these efforts will lead to new interest in the field.

PM: What will be key to ensuring photonics and optics workforce success?

Kimerling: The photonics and optics communities need to develop an environment of intellectual excitement focused on technology milestones. In the past, the electronics community has done this successfully and has had hundreds of thousands of people work together to solve problems through Roadmap initiatives and parallel efforts.

Photonics, optics, and integrated photonics are fields that are still emerging, and it will take coordination and input from industry to move forward. The Roadmap is the best way to work together to create consensus, and it is open to all [who are] ready to participate. Companies must think in terms of how much market share they want to capture in the emerging technology of photonic integration, rather than just what their next products will be. This mindset will allow them to realize the cross-market applications that are critical for success.

Published: June 2018
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...
photonicsOpticsworkforcetrainingOptics & Photonics Technology INnovationOPT IN!Lionel KimerlingAIM PhotonicseducationMITengineeringEducation Special Sectionwork in photonics

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