Natalia Chekhovskaya, Associate Director, Co-Principal Investigator, Center for Laser and Fiber Optics Education, LASER- TEC, Indian River State College
What is photonics?
Born with the first demonstration of a laser in 1960, photonics has been pushing progress and innovation in many industries. The science and technology of light, photonics is a key enabling technology that addresses critical issues of the modern world. This rapid growth created challenges in building and sustaining a scalable technical workforce, which needs to be addressed by academia, industry, and government.
The 21st century is influenced by photonics as much as electronics influenced the 20th century. During this “photon century,” scientists and engineers swiftly brought the technology from laboratories to commercial applications. Today, we use photonics devices in many critical sectors- healthcare, medicine, telecommunications, energy generation, manufacturing, national defense, and security. Every day we learn about new developments in emerging quantum and silicon photonics technologies.
The demand for talent in photonics
This accelerated growth of photonics-enabled technologies drives the need for technical experts to repair and maintain photonics devices. The recent study “Preparing the Advanced Manufacturing Workforce: A Study of Occupation and Skills Demand in the Photonics Industry” projected the need for 3,500 new middle-skilled openings per year.
Students can enter photonics middle-skilled occupations following college associate-level programs that introduce hands-on training and technical knowledge in electronics, optoelectronics, automation, and fabrication. The same study estimated that the nation would need about 140 training programs to meet the workforce demand. However, there are only 31 colleges with photonics associate programs, certifications, or specialized courses.
Developing a strong pipeline of students aware of emerging photonics opportunities presents, perhaps, the biggest challenge. The problem is two-fold: the general lack of knowledge about photonics and deep misconceptions about the quality of jobs and career paths available after an associate-level college degree. Today, photonics technicians enjoy higher than average wages; they play critical roles, are thought after by the industry, and have secure careers in multiple industry sectors.
Many organizations offer remarkable solutions and resources. Yet, continuous innovations and breakthroughs in photonics force us to keep pace and play a catch-up game in resolving the workforce challenges
Very often, two-year colleges don’t have sufficient resources to launch and sustain the high-level training that requires substantial investments in equipment and facilities. The high cost of on-the-job training deters industries from scaling up continuing education. By curating and strengthening the college-industry partnerships, we can quickly and efficiently increase the training options and address the looming shortage in the photonics workforce.
With the comprehensive curriculum revision system in place, academic institutions are limited to how quickly they can change and rebuild their programs. Many colleges in the US have implemented modular infusion of photonics-based technologies into the fundamental core of electronics engineering technology, manufacturing, and other related programs to address the issue. This approach proved to offer flexibility to the current demands of the industry and sustainability and agility to college programs.
Programs to meet the workforce demand
Different strategies were implemented to boost photonic technicians’ training programs: strengthening and expanding existing programs, facilitating the creation of new programs, launching apprenticeship programs, diversifying training options, creating programs specialized for veterans and military, upskilling programs that aim to bring the displaced workforce back to the market, and others.
National, regional, and local initiatives have addressed the workforce issues. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Labor, the Network of Manufacturing USA Institutes, the recently formed congressional by-partisan by-cameral Optics and Photonics Caucus, the National Quantum Initiative, and others are trailblazing the expansion of the workforce in the emerging technologies labor market.
The Center for Laser and Fiber optics Education, LASER-TEC, was chartered by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education to build and sustain the pipeline of technicians in lasers, optics, photonics, and fiber optics. Headquartered at Indian River State College, Florida, LASER-TEC is a consortium of colleges, universities, industry, and professional associations. LASER-TEC supports a network of 44 colleges with resources, teaching materials, industry partnerships, and public outreach. The Center closely works with the industry network of over 170 companies nationwide. It engages with the regional industry clusters and professional organizations to carefully and thoughtfully foster the current and future skilled talent in photonics.
The Center develops and maintains a library of open learning resources to help colleges and training programs grow their offerings and seamlessly infuse laser, photonics technologies. Our website hosts collections of textbooks, educational modules, laboratory manuals, informational and outreach materials. Educators, industry professionals, career shifters, and those displaced by the changing labor market can strengthen their knowledge of laser, photonics, and fiber optics technologies with our series of hybrid and online professional development courses. Students, parents, teachers can find answers to their questions about photonics technologies, the future outlook, academic, and career possibilities.
The progress in closing the workforce supply-demand gap in the recent several years has been notable. Many organizations offer remarkable solutions and resources. Yet, continuous innovations and breakthroughs in photonics force us to keep pace and play a catch-up game in resolving the workforce challenges. The growing partnerships among academia, industry, and government need to create and drive more programs and initiatives to sustain the synergetic growth of the new generation of workers in photonics.