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Seeing a path from schooling to careers

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Closing the gap in the qualified technical workforce is a major challenge for both academia and industry across all segments of photonics. Problems faced include the lack of student awareness due to incorrect perceptions about the field, the lack of clear steps and programs for those who switch careers, the lack of meaningful college-employer partnerships, and the lack of relevant hands-on training programs. Numerous state and federal programs have been developed to identify solutions, but there is still a lot of work to do.

As witnessed in other branches of photonics, the field of biophotonics has transformed quickly from research-driven science to technologies that improve and save lives. Every day we learn more about how imaging devices help doctors look deeper into human tissue, spectroscopy provides tools for accurate and swift diagnostics, and robotics minimizes recovery time for patients after surgery. This acceleration from science to practical application fuels the need for technical experts to maintain, calibrate, troubleshoot, and repair these electro-optical devices.

Students can enter emerging careers in biomed following two-year programs that enable them to obtain hands-on skills with specific knowledge in electronics as well as optics-based and medical technologies. However, with a looming college enrollment crisis nationwide, identified last fall in a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, colleges are struggling to sustain what are often considered “boutique” or specialty programs. Many colleges have successfully drawn enrollees by offering biomedical technology as a specialization within their electronics engineering technology degree programs, artfully crafting curriculum that responds to local workforce needs and investigating new approaches in student outreach.

Students and their parents have deep misconceptions about the level of precollege and college preparation required, as we have learned through our outreach, as well as the quality of life that can be enjoyed with a technical associate degree. They often believe that tech-related jobs are physically demanding; they involve working in dirty, soiled environments; or that they require advanced preparations in science and math. Very often, people are not aware of available academic and career options.

There is a general lag in the supply of college applicants that can potentially be leveraged to supply biomedical technology programs. Applicants often face long waiting lists while trying to get into medical and health care programs that have very competitive admission requirements. Many of these students will not finish their coursework once they realize the burdens of working in the medical field, such as dealing with sickness and the loss of life on a daily basis. Florida’s Indian River State College and other institutions are working across academic disciplines to develop ways to assist and transition these students into biomedical technology fields.

Creating crosswalks in the educational process is also important for applicants looking to change careers or for military personnel returning to civilian lives. The intricate decoding of military occupational training to academic credit hours has been developed by OP-TEC (the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education) and LASER-TEC (the Center for Laser and Fiber Optics Education) — the Advanced Technological Educational centers chartered by the National Science Foundation — in the past few years. LASER-TEC’s clear transitional paths have increased the numbers of veterans in photonics-related programs, based on the data we have tracked.

Colleges cannot tackle the workforce challenge alone. The sustainability of their programs depends on continuous input and strong collaboration with industry. Colleges can fill the gap between students and employers or connect to the current labor market. However, these institutions often do not have resources to swiftly adapt to the demands of emerging technologies. To train faculty, adopt curriculum, or procure new equipment, colleges heavily rely on assistance from industry as well as state and federal programs. Successful synergistic relationships with industry — based on student enrollment and curriculum alignment with industry needs — have been fostered at Indian River State College, Central Carolina Community College, Monroe Community College, Indian Hills Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and many others.

Among a handful of projects funded by various organizations, LASER-TEC has boosted the numbers of qualified graduates, tripled the enrollment in photonics programs nationwide, and significantly expanded support to photonics in biomedical technologies, solar, and fiber optics fields. Almost 40,000 people have attended LASER-TEC outreach events, and 700 secondary and post-secondary educators have completed our professional development programs. As proud as we are of our accomplishments, we clearly understand that many challenges have yet to be met in filling the photonics education-to-workforce gap.

Natalia Chekhovskaya Kearney Meet the author

Natalia Chekhovskaya Kearney is associate director of LASER-TEC, a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Center for Laser and Fiber Optics Education. She has a master’s degree in physics and has been actively involved in national skilled technical workforce initiatives for the last seven and a half years.

Views on how to advance biophotonics

The views expressed in ‘Biopinion’ are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Photonics Media. To submit a Biopinion, send a few sentences outlining the proposed topic to [email protected]. Accepted submissions will be reviewed and edited for clarity, accuracy, length, and conformity to Photonics Media style.

May/Jun 2020
Biophotonicsimagingspectroscopydiagnosticsroboticsbiomedcollege enrollmentNational Student Clearinghouse Research CenterLASER-TECIndian River State Collegeop-teceducation-to-workforce gapBiopinion

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