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Training talent to hit a moving target

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Unlike conventional sectors — such as manufacturing, health care, or agriculture — that base their value on quantifiable production, the value of photonics is better measured by a more qualitative metric. Its value compares less to the square footage of a house and more to the scenery and light provided by the house’s windows.

Put another way, the best measure of photonics’ value is in the applications and end markets it enables and enhances.

Life-changing advancements in photonics have as much impact on people as life-changing advancements in physics, which is to say not much — or at least not at first. When photonics does produce something revolutionary, people tend not to notice until it’s rewriting the rules for some industry or market downstream.

Wavelength division multiplexing? Metamaterial-enabled miniature spectrometers? Laser-cooled atoms? Snore…

Streaming movies on demand? Medical wearables? Quantum computing? Sign me up!

The photonics industry is basically the breakthrough machine for other sectors.

The good news is that, as a source of pervasive and often revolutionary value-added solutions, photonics is more recession-proof than most industries. Indeed, this sector is often capitalizing on new, cutting-edge application markets even as the larger economy is flagging. In addition to the breakthrough applications mentioned above, today’s list also includes PICs, automotive lidar, e-mobility, AR/VR, and satellite communications.

The drawback to all this is that, compared to other industries, opportunity is often a moving target for photonics. Although specialization in some element of photonics is important to succeed, many professionals need to leave their comfort zone and update their knowledge and skill sets to navigate target end markets.

This pattern was evident at the PIC International conference in Brussels in June, where boutique PIC designers found that their concepts didn’t always translate well to fab processes geared for high-volume production of semiconductor chips. Last month on this page I mentioned a similar culture clash between physicists and industrial engineers as they sought a common foundation on which to build the Quantum 2.0 revolution.

Nowhere is demand for multidisciplinary photonics professionals more acute today than in the quantum workforce, which must blend photonic principles with some combination of materials science, industrial engineering, and, in some cases, computer engineering and programming skills. Codifying the quantum skill set is a particular challenge for academic institutions, which must reverse-engineer their curriculum to prepare a new generation of students for this new industry.

For our annual education issue, associate editor Joel Williams surveyed trade groups, government officials, academics, and industry leaders on the quantum frontier to sketch a profile of future quantum workers and explore how photonics will fit into their job description. His feature begins here.

Before the industry can cultivate a multidisciplinary photonics workforce, it must first attract students to the discipline of photonics. Here, contributing editor James Schlett looks at the even deeper issue of making STEM studies an appealing academic and career path for more secondary and undergrad students.

Hopefully, one of our industry’s next breakthroughs will find a way to attract more talent.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2022

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