How to resolve the photonics community’s skilled workforce shortage

Jan. 16, 2024
Two research reports offer insight into the type of commitment required to get—and stay—ahead of a seemingly intractable problem.

Skilled workforce shortages, one of the most often cited top challenges within the photonics community—indeed within broader manufacturing industries—are projected to worsen with the influx of government initiatives to localize supply chains. Fortunately, recent research published in Applied Optics points us toward more effective approaches to address the problem. These reports are worth more in-depth analysis and follow-up research.

The first four words of the title, “Adaptable middle-skilled labor: a neglected roadblock to photonics industry growth,” published last June, highlight two overlooked aspects of the issue.

The first word, “adaptable,” carries a twofold message, conveying the duty required of the programs and their participants. First, it emphasizes the necessity of ensuring that photonics students understand photonics work’s rapidly changing nature and equips them with the skills to keep up. Second, the word stresses the equal requisite to establish strategies for continually renewing curricula and training programs with new knowledge targeted to middle-skill positions. Specifically, the researchers suggest strengthening community colleges’ links to universities and industry.

The following three words, “middle-skilled labor,” highlight that solving this problem demands specificity in defining it. With an approach too detailed to share here, the researchers meticulously specify the occupations experiencing shortages and identify the skills those jobs require. Too often, reports and discussions focus on the general gap between available jobs and the people available to fill them. While such reports are excellent for calling attention to and generating urgency about the issue, their use for developing potential solutions is limited.

The second report, “Support the education of your future employees,” offers a comprehensive example, based on personal experience, of an effective collaboration between industry and a community college. The author shares practical methods of industrial participation in the educational process, which include reviewing and suggesting updates to the curriculum, providing presentations and equipment exhibitions in the school’s lab, offering shop-floor tours with demonstrations of or direct interaction with equipment during field trips, and helping schools acquire the latest equipment for their labs.

For decades, the photonics industry has struggled to meet its ever-growing need for skilled workers. To get ahead of the issue will take sustained, research- and practice-based effort. These reports provide much-needed insights on how to do so, making them essential reading by leaders throughout the photonics community.

About the Author

Patricia Panchak | Editor in Chief

Patricia Panchak began her role as editor in chief of Laser Focus World in August 2023. She has held editorial leadership roles for over 25 years—15 years of which were with IndustryWeek as the brand’s managing editor and then editor-in-chief. From 2011 through 2017, she then served as group content director for the Manufacturing & Supply Chain Group, which included IndustryWeek.

Since 2018, Patricia spent time as a business journalist, editorial consultant, and public speaker, specializing in business and manufacturing strategies and best practices; trends and emerging technologies; and public policy.

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