Why it’s vital to push government statistical agencies to track the photonics industry

April 15, 2024
How standardized data can help address the photonics skilled workforce shortage.

Aack! Get the government involved? It’ll take too long! We must act now, not wait on something that will take years. That was one reaction to my previous commentary, “A practical step to increase the awareness of photonics.” 

And in response, I say I agree. In many ways, that’s true. However, let’s not let urgency override the important. We can and should execute both short- and long-term strategies to overcome the chronic problem of photonics skilled workforce shortages.  

For one, consider the research I wrote about—and again encourage anyone concerned about this issue to read—in my earlier commentary,  “How to resolve the photonics community’s skilled workforce shortage.” 

Specifically, read the methodology, where the authors explain their first step: Discern the Photonics Industry. After explaining briefly how the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) works, they write: “First, we have to define the contours of the photonics industry, since photonics is not formally represented in industrial classification systems.” They note how, after consulting expert input, they chose the sectors to study.

Then, to further clarify the workforce needs, they write, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) industrial classification system does not have a formal classification for the photonics industry.” So, again using expert input, they “selected 15 related six-digit industries in the NAICS to constitute a credible, comprehensive picture of the industry.” Explaining that these 15 NAICS codes translate to eight BLS industrial classification codes, they write, “For this study, we are using these eight classifications to search for photonics industry firms, treating them as hybrid members of these eight industries’ classes. This hybrid is used to choose relevant occupations.”  

In the next step, the researchers identified photonics occupations and skills using the BLS-equivalent industrial classification codes and a combination of the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net database and the 2018 National Employment Matrix (NEM). With that information, the researchers “identified 21 relevant middle-skilled positions associated with the photonics industry,” which they grouped into eight representative positions as the basis for a survey about skilled workforce needs in the photonics industry. 

The researchers applied similar rigor to define the critical common skills and tasks required of current and future middle-skilled photonics workers. But I think you get my point. Lacking government data specific to photonics, we must do a lot of preliminary work to define the industry and identify relevant occupations and skills before we can even begin understanding—let alone addressing—photonics’ skilled workforce shortage.

Real-world issues

This lack of standardized data affects more than academic research efforts. I heard a similar sentiment at a Photonics West presentation. Commenting on the challenge of recruiting middle-skilled photonics workers, Alexis Vogt, AmeriCOM’s executive director of workforce and higher education, stressed the importance—and scarcity—of data. “If you want to know how many electricians are needed in California, you can find the answer,” she said. However, it’s “really tricky to quantify” photonics skilled positions, referring to the difficulty of using NAICS codes. 

One issue, Vogt explained, is that the photonics community has no standardized job titles for mid-skilled positions, which “matters a lot when you’re doing things like writing grants to secure the money” for recruiting and educating students into the profession. “You need to state the cause and the need,” which means you must understand the gap, she said. “Exactly how many people do we need, and in which county, and in which city, and in which state? That data simply is not available as it is right now.”

At this point, I’ll restate what I learned from reporting on the lean/continuous improvement management strategy: To solve a problem, you must first define the problem with specificity. To do that, you must gather the pertinent data. The authors of the previously mentioned research and Dr. Vogt know that. They sought and used the best available data from governmental statistical agencies. Think of how much progress they—and the photonics community—could make in addressing the photonics skilled workforce challenges when they—and we—can leverage an agreed-upon, readily available, standardized dataset.

About the Author

Patricia Panchak

Patricia Panchak 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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