Here are two words you never thought you’d hear in this economy: help wanted. Two Florida programs are seeking to attract photonics technicians for jobs with optical technology companies.
Despite the sagging economy, optics and photonics companies in central Florida find themselves with unfilled openings for technicians almost every year. This fall, local employers and schools are banding together to train workers for these jobs.
Photonics technician positions, which often require an associate’s degree or two years of post-secondary education, typically include high-precision tasks such as aligning optical systems, testing optical setups to verify experimental parameters and repairing expensive devices. The technicians work closely with engineers and scientists, mostly in the private sector.
Unfortunately, there is a shortage of photonics technicians—and training programs—across the United States. Fewer than 30 U.S. colleges offer suitable programs, and they do not produce enough graduates to fill the need. Jim Lipscomb, advanced projects manager for Northrop Grumman Laser Systems in Orlando, cited a national survey reporting that at least 1,000 such jobs have gone unfilled every year for at least the past decade.
Training Programs for Photonics Technicians
Wallace State Community College, Hanceville
Associate’s degree in electronics technology includes electro-optics classes and telecommunications tracks.
Pima Community College Tucson
Associate’s degree in optical systems technology and a certificate in optical manufacturing or electro-optical assembly and testing.
Associate’s degree in information technology with an emphasis on fiber optics.
Irvine Valley College/Irvine Center for Applied Competitive Technologies
(Irvine CACT), Tustin
Industry-oriented classes in fiber optics, laser safety, optics fabrication, lens design and other photonics topics.
San Jose City College
Associate’s degree in laser technology.
Three Rivers Community College, Norwich
Associate’s degree and 15-credit certificate in laser and fiber-optic technology.
Delaware Technical and Community College
Newark (Stanton Campus)
Diploma in laser and optics studies that can be combined with associate’s degrees in engineering or science technologies.
Indian River State College, Fort Pierce
Associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology with a focus in lasers and photonics, and a 12-credit certificate in lasers and photonics.
Valencia Community College, Orlando
Photonics is an area of specialization within the associate’s degree program in electronic engineering technology. Students may also earn a 12-credit laser and photonic technician’s certificate.
Idaho State University Pocatello
An advanced technical certificate and an associate’s degree in laser/electro-optics technology.
College of Lake County Grayslake
A 16-credit optics and photonics certificate, will
add an associate’s degree in fall 2011.
Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, multiple locations
A 40-contact-hour workforce-development program in fiber optics.
Indian Hills Community College, Ottumwa
Associate’s degree in laser/electro-optics technology.
Springfield Technical Community College Springfield
Associate’s degree in laser and electro-optics technology.
Camden County College, Blackwood
Associate’s degrees in lasers/electro-optic technology and fiber-optic technology, one-year certificate in fiber-optic technology.
Central New Mexico Community College Albuquerque
Associate’s degree and certificate in photonics technology.
Monroe Community College, Rochester
Associate’s degree and non-degree certificate in optical systems technology.
Queensborough Community College, New York
Associate’s degree in laser and fiber-optics engineering technology.
Central Carolina Community College, Lillington
Associate’s degree in laser and photonics technology.
Sinclair Community College, Dayton
Associate’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology with a telecommunications option.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Freeport
Associate’s degree in electro-optics, plus a bachelor’s in applied physics with an electro-optics track.
Texas State Technical College, Waco
Associate’s degree in laser electro-optics technology and a photonics technician certificate.
Bellingham Technical College, Bellingham Associate’s degree in electronics includes courses in photonics.
On behalf of his employer, which hired about 60 technicians last year, Lipscomb has spent a lot of time and money visiting existing training programs and recruiting workers to relocate to Florida. Some of the new technicians enjoy their new jobs and home; others leave when their year-long commitment ends—requiring the company to start all over again.
While talking with a dean at Orlando’s Valencia Community College (VCC), one of two Florida schools that train photonics technicians, Lipscomb learned that the college already had several dual-degree and certificate programs with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). When the new academic year started on Aug. 24, a program called Photonics Academy opened its doors at Wekiva High School in Apopka, a suburb of Orlando.
College studies for free
Photonics Academy gives Wekiva students the chance to earn a two-year college degree along with their secondary school diploma. In the second week of classes, Photonics Academy’s enrollment stood at 44 out of a maximum of 50, said Chip Bashinski, a curriculum resource teacher at OCPS headquarters. Bashinski serves as a liaison between Northrop Grumman, the public schools and VCC.
Students who join Photonics Academy as freshmen can earn their A.S. degrees along with their high school diploma. Sophomores, juniors and seniors can accrue as many college credits as they can and then finish their coursework after graduating.
Only photonics courses will be taught at the Wekiva campus. It’s up to the students to take non-photonics courses on their own time to fulfill the remaining degree requirements. Students can take those courses at VCC free of charge.
Lipscomb pitches the academy as a dual-enrollment program rather than a vocational education program. He also tells students and parents that competition between photonics companies leads to good pay and benefits for technicians. Salaries for photonics technicians start from the low $40,000s.
For students who want to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, all VCC credits are transferable to the four-year engineering program, thanks to an agreement between VCC and the University of Central Florida (UCF).
OCPS officials hope to make Photonics Academy into a magnet program and offer it to other students in the county, although the organizers want to limit class sizes to 25. The starting cost of the Academy is about $300,000, and the participating institutions have provided about three-quarters of the funding. They are seeking additional donations, particularly for fiber-optic equipment. The Valencia Foundation, the fund-raising affiliate of VCC, will apply for state matching funds for any contributions to the Academy.
Retraining displaced workers
The Sunshine State is home to two other efforts to increase the supply of photonics technicians.
Workforce Central Florida, a regional employment agency, received funding through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—the so-called stimulus bill—to retrain displaced workers and help them acquire new jobs. The group will pay for at least 20 workers to obtain certificates, measured in continuing education units, and find employment by June 30, 2010.
Participants can come from any previous occupation, although education or experience in a technical or manufacturing field is an asset. Workers will need some high-school math in order to understand photonics concepts. Applicants take a qualifying exam to assess where they are.
“I’m hoping we get quite a few applicants and can choose people who would be most likely to meet the hiring requirements,” said Jim Pearson, executive director of the Florida Photonics Cluster (FPC).
Participants will take all the photonics classes online, except for a lab course. According to Pearson, Al Ducharme of UCF is working with SPIE and OP-TEC (National Center for Photonics Education) to develop a Web-based host.
Photonics Academy classrooms will be used for hands-on training. The lab course will consist of nine class hours, during which students will learn about lasers and their alignment, how to handle and mount optical components and how to measure basic parameters such as beam power and divergence.
UCF’s College of Optics and Photonics is also working with the FPC to develop a photonics tech certification program. It will initially be for the state of Florida, but the ultimate goal is to go national. Fiber-optics technicians and installers have two certification programs, but there are no such programs for optical or photonics fabrication, test and assembly.
“Photonics is definitely an expanding area, and it’s not nearly as well known or understood by people coming into technical fields, particularly at the technician level, as electronics,” Pearson said. These new programs aim to change that.
Patricia Daukantas is the senior writer/editor of Optics & Photonics News.