Business Forum: Laser and fiber optics technician education for the next generation
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of technological innovation in the 21st century is fueled by the advancement of lasers, optics, and fiber-optic communications.
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of technological innovation in the 21st century is fueled by the advancement of lasers, optics, and fiber-optic communications, or—as we technical people call it—photonics.
Technicians that can build, install, maintain, and repair the multitude of systems utilizing photonics technologies in the following sectors of the economy are in short supply: industrial manufacturing; healthcare; sensing, monitoring, and control; communication information processing and storage; semiconductor processing and manufacturing; consumer and entertainment systems; lighting and displays; solar photovoltaics and alternative energy; defense, security, and law enforcement, and many more that are announced every day.
The U.S. Laser and Fiber Optics (LFO) industry currently employs over 7 million professionals.1 In this exponentially growing market, developing and sustaining the LFO technical pipeline in the U.S. is a task of national importance. According to the U.S. Department of Labor O*NET project, 17,100 photonics/LFO technicians (1710 per year) will be needed between 2014 and 2024.2 However, all U.S. colleges with photonics/LFO programs produce collectively only 300 technicians annually3—the demand is almost six times greater than the supply! It is evident that technicians with specialized training in LFO are, and will continue to be, in high demand. LASER-TEC graduates are routinely offered multiple jobs before they even graduate.
Because of the exponential advancement of LFO applications, the industry demand for qualified LFO technicians has been growing faster than the increase in highly skilled graduates from two-year colleges. The recovery of the U.S. economy and the return of retirement savings to pre-2008 levels has enabled many professionals to finally start retiring.4 This further widened the gap in the supply and demand of the technical LFO workforce.
Since the inception of the LASER-TEC Center in September 2013, its primary mission has been to address this issue and develop a sustainable pipeline of qualified LFO technicians to meet the industry demand across the southeast region. During this period, LASER-TEC has hosted over 250 outreach events and launched dozens of informational and promotional e-mail campaigns that have reached thousands of Center stakeholders. Additionally, we have participated in nearly 100 state and national conferences, meetings, and symposiums. Specifically, the Center has been able to accomplish the following:
- Increase the number of LFO students from 95 to 153, an increase of 61%;
- Increase the number of program graduates from 23 to 98—a growth of 426% and 100% work placement or academic articulation with an average starting salary of $53,000;
- Provide LFO education to over 350 high school teachers, advisors, counselors, and administrators, thereby impacting nearly 20,000 students in their classrooms;
- Organize 200 public events that provided outreach to 22,500 students, parents, teachers, and members of the general public;
- Develop, build, and distribute 560 Light and Optics Exploration Kits to secondary school teachers;
- Author and publish the Laser and Fiber Optics Lesson Plans and Fiber Optics for Technologists books geared for secondary schools and colleges; and
- Conduct workforce needs and skills assessments of 147 LFO companies.
LASER-TEC serves eight southeast states (FL, GA, AL, MS, TN, SC, NC, and KY) in the area of lasers and optics, and the entire nation in fiber optics, spectroscopy, and photonic integrated circuits. The leading LASER-TEC colleges are Indian River State College (Fort Pierce, FL), Central Carolina Community College (Lillington, NC), and Tri-County Technical College (Pendleton, SC), but many other colleges have partnered with LASER-TEC and offer LFO courses as of this writing (see figure).
|This map shows the colleges that have partnered with LASER-TEC and offer LFO courses. Those designated with the yellow triangle are outside the southeast area.|
Graduates of these colleges have been sought out by companies and organizations from around the country. Many graduates have the luxury of receiving multiple offers for employment. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA), Mazak Optronics (Elgin, IL), B&W Tek (Newark, DE), Lockheed Martin (Santa Barbara, CA), and Coherent (Santa Clara, CA) are some of the organizations outside the southeastern U.S. that have recruited technicians from LASER-TEC colleges.
Even though there is such a wide gap between the supply and demand of LFO technicians and a desperate need in the industry, prospective students are not flocking to LASER-TEC programs. We have to continue working hard to bring awareness to our youth about LFO technologies and career opportunities. From our experience, we found that students choose a field of study and eventually a career from the range of occupations they are aware of. If you ask elementary school students what they would like to be when they grow up, the most common answer would be a teacher because that is the only career they have been introduced to and know about. But as children go through middle and high school, their horizons expand to include other careers.
The technical LFO careers are "hidden" behind the walls of industrial companies and organizations in which students have no access. Most parents, teachers, and counselors are not aware of these occupations, either, so students very rarely have an opportunity to learn and consider a career in LFO.
Because of this realization, LASER-TEC partner colleges have engaged in a continuous awareness campaign to K-12 students, teachers, advisors, and administrators. This campaign is not a once-only informational event, but a systematic awareness campaign with several occurrences throughout the year, repeated in the following years as the students go through their secondary school.
LASER-TEC's efforts are greatly enhanced as the LFO industry gets involved by assigning their technicians and engineers to talk to K-12 audiences, opening its doors to facility tours, offering apprenticeships or internships, and creating awareness materials (such as videos, posters, and informational flyers), among other efforts. Together with the industry partners, the Center has sponsored multiple awareness activities, but more systematic work needs to be done to reach out to a wider audience. We urge companies in the field of light-based technologies to participate in this awareness campaign by starting in a feasible way for your organization.
Please consider how your organization can help bring LFO awareness to our next generation of technicians, scientists, and engineers—this will benefit our children, our economy, and our nation.
1. See http://bit.ly/2fgoJgF.
2. See http://www.onetonline.org.
4. I. D. Wyatt and K. J. Byun, "The U.S. economy to 2018: From recession to recovery," MLR, 132, 11, 11–29 (2009).