By JAMIE LACOUTURE
Over the last 40 years, when people heard the word “industry” or manufacturing,” what came to mind was textiles, automobiles, factories and long hours working on assembly lines.
Similarly, trade-based jobs, such as plumber, electrician, mechanic and construction worker started to be viewed by many as a less desirable career path, and vocational schools shifted away from teaching these important skills. As computer technology revolutionized American society, a stigma was established that careers in manufacturing and trade-skills could not provide the same quality of life and standard of living as white collar positions. In recent years, the pressure on graduating high school students has been strongly focused on attending college, whether that be a two-year or four-year institution.
However, recent advances in technology have created an increasingly large need for industry-based and trade-focused talent. As advanced manufacturing practices have become very technical and specialized, the demand for a skilled workforce is becoming more pronounced.
The value of employees of this nature is immeasurable and that value continues to grow as the baby boomer generation phases into retirement, leaving huge gaps in trades and manufacturing. Further exacerbating the lack of industry and trade workers is the fact that over the past decade or two, many manufacturing jobs had been moved overseas where work can be done more cheaply.
The current political climate and the push to “reshore” jobs back into the United States is creating a change and shifting priorities for large- and medium-sized manufacturers — to hire reliable and skilled workers at home, rather than overseas. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense began assessing the state of the U.S. manufacturing, supply chain and defense industrial base. In following years, they have made very clear recommendations surrounding the need to accelerate workforce development efforts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to help protect our national security. This is helping to change the view on blue collar jobs to new collar jobs, which provide livable wages and viable career paths.
One of the fastest growing industries and areas of manufacturing lies in the field of photonics — and it’s right in our New Jersey backyard, which is home to Thorlabs (Newton, Andover, Blairstown), Inrad Optics (Northvale), Special Optics (Denville) Esco Optics (Oak Ridge), Coherent (East Hanover), and more. Photonics, the physical science of light and its properties, focuses on how light is generated, transmitted, detected, and how it can be manipulated and used in a wide variety of applications.
Photonics science is embedded in self-driving cars using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), facial recognition, cell phone manufacturing, solar panels, next-generation medical imaging and more. You’re probably familiar with some of the applications of technologies produced in these companies without even knowing it. Optical coherence tomography, a non-invasive imaging technique that uses light, can identify skin malignancies and retinal detachment in the eye.
Microscopy equipment, such as microscopes, optical filters, and objectives have been used to detect breast cancer. Ultrasound equipment utilizes optics for various exploratory procedures — most commonly to look at babies as they develop in their mothers’ wombs.
A surge in the photonics industry’s growth has created an insatiable demand for precision optics technicians to drive manufacturing processes — something that not only our nation, but the entire world is desperately lacking. A recent presentation given at Thorlabs by Alexis Vogt, endowed chair and professor at Monroe Community College (MCC), revealed that while MCC graduates 31 individuals each year, the optics industry requires a far greater number of technicians. In the Finger Lakes region alone, where MCC is based, there are approximately 574 open optics technician positions. Vogt also commented that companies as far-reaching as Germany have contacted her about their need for optics technicians, showing the global impact that the shortage in technicians has on the manufacturing community.
However, until recently, MCC had the only well-established optical systems technician program in the nation, making it difficult to keep up with the pressure for optics technicians nationally.
The disparity of optics technicians to demand of open positions in the industry is stifling innovation. Without optics technicians to work with optics engineers on R&D, design, manufacturing, and quality control, much of the responsibility of the optics technicians falls to the engineers. In turn, engineering output is dropping and productivity is halting.
Fortunately, Sussex County Community College, and others, are launching similar training programs across the nation. The Department of Defense has identified several locations conducive to optics technician training programs, due to their saturation of available jobs and industry support. California, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have particularly strong photonics and optics communities.
The catalyst for the optics technician program at SCCC was Paul Melone, optics business unit leader at Thorlabs. Having worked in the photonics industry for more than 40 years, Melone recognized the biggest barrier to hiring manufacturing professionals, such as optics technicians, is that there is a shortage of qualified workforce with many people in these roles aging out. Melone says his inspiration to reach out to SCCC was multi-faceted. He saw the pressure being put on the industry and Thorlabs to hire manufacturing professionals, as well as the pressure that is often put on youth in weighing their education and career options in the years following high school.
Thanks to the willingness of Dr. Jon Connolly, president of SCCC, the optics technician program launched in September 2019, after months of hard work by several members of the SCCC and Thorlabs teams. Connolly recognizes the importance of synergy in the community and as such, fully supported the effort to tailor a program that will benefit Thorlabs and other local companies in the photonics and optics community.
The program, which is currently at capacity, provides an experiential opportunity to students and saves employers money and time on training through its hands-on and theoretical design.
In fact, multiple companies in the industry have already enrolled their employees in the program at SCCC. “The optics technician program at SCCC gives another option for students to receive an affordable education, graduate employment-ready, and almost guarantees a job is waiting – not just in Sussex County, but across the nation,” says Melone.
One of the largest appeals to a program like this is that students will emerge with little to no debt, have strong earning potential working at the forefront of innovation and design, and a multitude of options for where to start their career. This is good news for a nation with over $1 trillion in student loan debt. Navid Entezarian, Thorlabs CNC production line manager states, “any industry will have ups and downs, but I see growth without end in sight in the photonics industry.” Photonics is at the heart of our most promising solutions to our biggest challenges: Health care, climate change, and national security. Entezarian, who has worked in the industry for seven years, played a large role in the development of the program by writing the courses and now as an adjunct professor at SCCC.
Randy Colon of Inrad Optics, located in Northvale, is one of the first students in the optics technician program. He has a tenure of over two years at Inrad Optics as an optics technician and is still learning. Colon says he finds the science behind optics combined with the process of manufacturing to be intriguing and the experience of taking the courses to be enthralling overall. Colon also credits the courses to providing him a better understanding of the fabrication processes he participates in daily and has allowed him to provide better training to other opticians on the job.
Another student, Kelly Dowling, of Thorlabs, appreciates that she can expand on the knowledge she has already developed as a member of the fabrication team at Thorlabs over the past five years. “I love the demonstrations,” she said. “I’m a visual learner so to see things in action really helps the lessons stick. I’ve even gone home and recreated some of them to show my family members.”
For students passionate about science and technology, or those who wish to play a hands-on role designing, manufacturing, and testing optical components, the optics technician program offered at SCCC is worth considering. This program has already garnered support from several optics and photonics manufacturers in New Jersey and beyond. “We’d welcome the opportunity to add to our list of supporters. Feedback from our surrounding community is vital.
We encourage our local parents, politicians, and businesses to look at this program and the promising, and progressive, future it supports,” encourages Melone.
To learn more about SCCC’s Optics Technology Program, visit https://sussex.edu/academics/degrees/optics-technology/.
For curriculum-specific inquiries, contact Navid Entezarian at NEntezarian@thorlabs.com or 973-300-3425.
If interested in applying to the Optics Technology Program at SCCC, contact Sherry Fitzgerald at email@example.com.
If curious about photonics, optics technician careers, or industry and manufacturing, contact Paul Melone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-300-4465.
Jamie LaCouture, community relations and tradeshow supervisor, has been with Thorlabs for nine years. She is responsible for overseeing the domestic tradeshow and conference efforts as well as corporate and local community relationships. In this role, LaCouture leverages her connections at Thorlabs to help focus on integrating academics, youth development, community engagement, and social services into the Newton area as well as surrounding townships, a vision driven from Thorlabs’ owner and founder, Alex Cable. The Optics Technology program at SCCC serves as a step to unite local business and academia to create a strong local economy that supports a much larger industry. LaCouture holds a master’s degree in management, strategy and leadership from Michigan State University as well as bachelor’s degrees in psychology and communication studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University.