Thursday, July 9, 2009

Retraining for Photonics Technicians

Many U.S. employers of photonics technicians are hiring workers that are underprepared for their jobs. Some of these techs are educated/trained in other technical fields; some have only a high school education, or some post secondary education in an unrelated field. A recent study conducted for OP-TEC reveals that employers are hiring 400-600 unprepared photonics techs each year. Employers don’t want to do this, but they’re doing it to survive; they need to fill staffing slots to meet their commitments and our colleges aren’t turning out enough photonics grads.

We need 2200 new photonics techs this year, but our colleges are only producing about 250 completers. OP-TEC is working with our U.S. colleges to start more photonics AAS degree programs and to increase the enrollment and completion rates of existing programs. But it will take years for us to “build our capacity” to have enough completers to fill the annual demand for photonics techs.

In the meantime, employers will continue to “make do” with underprepared workers; and these new or transferred workers will have to “learn on the job”. On the job training (OJT) is important and useful, but it is usually limited to survival training on specific equipment and processes that are peculiar to an employer’s current equipment and work assignments. It rarely includes the basic knowledge and skills that underpin the technology and provide the foundation for survival and/or growth. In the case of photonics, this basic knowledge/skill includes geometric and wave optics, laser operation and output characteristics - and laser safety.

So, what can be done “in the meantime”? If photonics techs need some education and training in this field, and if they are near one of the colleges in our country that offers photonics courses (see a map of these college locations in my May 6 blog posting), then they should investigate the offerings that are available locally. But this option may not be practical for the following reasons:

  • There is not a photonics college within commuting distance.
  • You may not have the time available to attend the college 2-3 evenings/week.

To address the need of employed photonics techs for education/training in this field, OP-TEC has developed and tested hybrid online courses in optics and photonics that can be offered by any college that has the appropriate faculty and labs to teach them. The course is hybrid because of the way it is delivered. Students can take the classroom part of the course “online” from their homes, workplace or while they are on the road. Videos of the lab activities are also shown online. Periodically, students come to the college to conduct the hands-on lab activities. This can be once every other two weeks or all at the end of the course, depending on the preference of the students and the college. If sufficient students from one employer constitute a course, the labs could be conducted at the employer worksite.

The six modules in the first course cover the following basic topics:

  • Nature and Properties of Light
  • Optical Handling and Positioning
  • Laser Safety
  • Geometric Optics
  • Wave Optics
  • Principles of Lasers

Employers have verified that these topics constitute the “core” of basic photonics. Supplemental math material can also be included for those students who need to brush up on their skills in algebra and trig.

In our nation’s present economic condition, with a high jobless rate, the news about available jobs in photonics sounds like a golden opportunity for some unemployed workers to “get back on the payroll” and enter some rewarding careers. But if you’re unprepared for a job, you’ll probably stay at the entry-level job, with little chance for advancement; you might even get laid off when a more qualified person can be hired. So, if you want to have a successful, rewarding career as a photonics technician, it’s important that you build your knowledge and skills in the basics of photonics technology.

If you’re interested and need to get connected with a photonics college, contact OP-TEC. Or, if you’re an employer looking for a way to upgrade your techs in photonics, we can help you find a college to provide these services. Contact us for more information!