“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Dr. Alexis Vogt. “But more than that, it is validation that we’re on the right path toward strengthening the optics manufacturing workforce.” Dr. Vogt received the SPIE María J. Yzuel Educator Award, recognizing outstanding contributions to optics education.
The award is the latest in Dr. Vogt’s distinguished career in optics spanning both academia and industry. As Endowed Chair and Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, Dr. Vogt took a moment to reflect on how far the program has come over the years. She admits it has been quite the journey.
“We had to start from the ground up. When I first joined MCC there were five students in the program,” Dr. Vogt recalled. MCC launched the Optical Systems Technology Program in 1963 as the first in the country to train technicians to work in the optics industry. Despite the program’s longevity, it was nearly defunct when Dr. Vogt joined in 2015. The program faced low enrollment, inconsistent leadership, and several other challenges.
High school students often did not consider careers in optics manufacturing, or even know they existed. Procuring equipment for the optics lab was costly. Limited budgets also made it difficult to recruit qualified instructors. Curriculum needed to align with current manufacturing requirements while anticipating future needs. The list went on and on.
Dr. Vogt began the turnaround by strengthening industry, community, and governmental relationships. She understood these groups could support funding which would help address the many challenges she faced in building the program. Since her arrival at MCC, Dr. Vogt secured more than seven million dollars in corporate support and grants, part of which helped fund a 1,400 square foot optics lab expansion with more than $1.5M in new, advanced, manufacturing equipment.
With a sharp eye on the student experience, Dr. Vogt mapped out viable career pathways to benefit students and employers. “Our goals included building up our academic pipeline through improved curriculum and high-school dual enrollment programs,” she explained. Eighteen local high schools have taught MCC optics curriculum as part of the dual-enrollment program, and this outreach has yielded results as MCC’s optics program enrollment increased year over year.
MCC now has 123 students enrolled in its optics courses, and recently boasted the largest graduating class in its history with an impressive 100% job placement rate.
Twenty-one students earned an associate of applied science (AAS) degree. Twenty-seven others earned a certificate. All earned a job, or job offer, within the optics field by graduation. “Companies including Corning, Optimax, Lumetrics, Sydor, and Toptica are all expanding and need at least 100 precision optics technicians this year alone,” Dr. Vogt said.
The national demand for optics technicians has grown for many years. Dr. Vogt viewed it as an opportunity to do once again what she does best – teach. Now, in addition to teaching in the classroom and lab, she is the AmeriCOM Workforce and Higher Education Executive Director – a role in which she teaches academic, industry, and community partners how they can collectively help grow the optics manufacturing workforce. Dr. Vogt has helped other community colleges around the country replicate her program at MCC in an effort to meet the demand for skilled optics technicians.
Beyond simply growing the number of enrollees, Dr. Vogt says she’s proud of the broad mix of students entering the industry. At MCC specifically, her program is recruiting from underrepresented communities. “We are much more diverse than we were before. Twenty-five percent of our students are women. Twenty-six percent are students of color. We are heading in the right direction.”
SPIE awarded Dr. Vogt its 2023 María J. Yzuel Educator Award for “excellence in optics-technician and associate-degree education and training, and for being a superb strategic educator in addressing the needs of an underserved market.” As an SPIE member, Dr. Vogt is also a frequent participant, speaker, exhibitor, and panel member at SPIE conferences. The annual conference hosts a course Dr. Vogt created and teaches called Fundamentals of Optical Engineering.
Think of it as a giant 3-D puzzle with complex pieces that often change, but somehow you have to make them all fit together. That is the task of AmeriCOM’s Technical Advisory Group whose members work with community colleges that are part of AmeriCOM’s optics ecosystems to establish and build optics training labs. So how do you go about putting the puzzle together? You start by assembling the right team.
“In order to work with each of the colleges around the country, we needed industry experts who have experience working with extremely sophisticated equipment,” explained Tom Battley, AmeriCOM’s Vice President of Government and Partnerships. “Our advisors not only have extensive industry experience, they also have great relationships with academia, and a technical understanding of the logistics necessary to build a lab.”
The group includes Mike Pomerantz who set up the 3,500 sq. ft. optics lab at Monroe Community College (MCC); Sterling Backus (based out of Colorado) and Paul Melone of Thorlabs; Navid Entezarian, also of Thorlabs, who helped teach students at Sussex County Community College (SCCC) in New Jersey before the school established its lab; and retired optics professional Paul Kelly. Ross Micali, whose expertise is in the area of apprenticeships and workplace skill development, is also part of the group.
Building an optics lab starts with the endgame in mind.
“Everything we build has to tie directly to the current needs of the optics manufacturing employers in a particular region.”Mike Pomerantz
“That’s the point of everything we’re trying to build. From there we determine the skills and processes we want these students to learn.”
When a community college determines it wants to create an Optics Technology program, administrators first meet with employers to determine the relevant skills their curriculum should include. Then the lead instructor creates a list of equipment the lab should include to help train students in those skills.
The advisors meet regularly to review the equipment list and piece together how to construct the lab. “We have to look at everything,” Pomerantz said. “Does the facility have enough space for the equipment? Does it have the appropriate ventilation and power requirements? How do we configure the floorplan for all of the equipment with enough space for students to flow through? It’s a lot to figure out.”
“It’s a complex problem to solve,” Battley said. “Even after we set up the labs there is ongoing troubleshooting and coordination with local employers, so we make sure the community colleges have open access to our group for support.”
AmeriCOM’s Technical Advisors have already helped establish optics labs at Front Range Community College in Colorado and SCCC, and work with additional colleges is underway. Group members say their work is just one piece of an even larger puzzle– that being the greater goal of strengthening the nation’s precision optics workforce.
“Our goal is to increase the capacity and quality of skilled optics technicians by a factor of 16 —from less than 50 per year to more than 800 per year by 2025,” Battley said. “That’s a big challenge, but together we can solve it.”
“I wish I knew about this career path when I was in high school.”
That’s a common refrain from optics technicians who say a career in optics isn’t on the radar for most high school students. AmeriCOM has a plan to change that, and a former teacher is leading the way.
Donna Smith taught high school Earth Sciences, Physics, and Optics for 30 years in Western New York State. As AmeriCOM’s Science Educator Liaison, she’s been in touch with teachers across the country and distributed morethan 85 boxes full of optics goodies to spur interest in the field.
“Many students, particularly over the last few years, don’t necessarily think a four-year degree is the way to go anymore. But they are not aware of a career in optics and what it entails.” Smith said. “Optics is a fulfilling career path that impacts our everyday lives. Getting started in the field doesn’t require the time or financial commitment of a four-year college.”
“Teachers love anything that comes for free,” Smith said, “especially those things that are useful for the teachers and the students.” The kits include several resources from the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) including posters and calendar notebooks as well as stickers, pens, info-cards, and collateral specific to the community college in each ecosystem. Smith said these small visual reminders can influence students’ perceptions about careers.
“Connecting with high school educators is an important part of AmeriCOM’s national outreach campaign, Light UpYour Future With Optics, which includes short videos from students and technicians talking about their optics career path. “It’s really important for young students to see people who look like them doing these cool jobs. Then they realize they can do it too,” Smith said.
“These kits are just the beginning,” Smith said. “It is really, truly, exciting to see how far the students can go.”
Smith plans to follow up with each school to discuss how they might introduce optics into their existing physics curriculum and create dual enrollment classes that tie into the local community college optics curriculum.
It has never been done in APOMA’s 30-year history. The American Precision Optics Manufacturing Association has always been a volunteer-driven organization. But incoming president Lee Steneken says the extraordinary growth of the optics industry requires a bold change: a full-time director at APOMA who can help those manufacturers meet current and future demands. He has a plan on how to do it.
Steneken formally assumed his role as APOMA president during Photonics West 2023 earlier this month where he first floated the idea of a full-time director. As the current owner and president of ESCO Optics in Oak Ridge, NJ, Steneken pointed out the association’s executives are also business owners and leaders who must balance their volunteer commitments with professional responsibilities. This was easier when the organization first started with about 10 manufacturing companies. Today APOMA includes more than 130 members, and Steneken says they deserve a focused effort to drive what he sees are the industry’s most important challenges.
“This is too important and we have to be more assertive.”
Steneken outlined three key priorities for APOMA as he begins his two-year term as president. Workforce development is priority one. “This is the most important issue our industry is facing right now,” he said, explaining the workforce development challenge goes beyond schooling and apprenticeship. Steneken identified a knowledge gap between experts who’ve been in the field for decades and understand the “art” of precision optics manufacturing and industry newcomers who are well-trained on the latest tools and procedures without fully understanding the science behind the processes.
Steneken says he tries to bridge this gap between the two generations of employees at his company with videos and training resources. More broadly, he pointed to APOMA’s support of AmeriCOM and its workforce development initiatives as an effective and necessary effort.
APOMA’s second priority is supporting local high schools and colleges involved in optics technology programs. Companies opening their manufacturing facilities for student tours can have a significant impact on recruiting new technicians to the field. He said APOMA must also continue its long-standing practice of technical, advisory, and financial support of community colleges with optics programs.
APOMA recently presented a $7,300 donation to Dr. Amanda Meier at Front Range Community College (FRCC) during its recent annual conference in Boulder, Colorado. The donation came with additional support from ESCO Optics, PR Hoffman, Thorlabs, IRD Glass, Colorado Thin Films, and Ray Williamson Consulting. Dr. Meier says FRCC will use the APOMA donation for lab equipment and supplies. Beyond the financial support, she says the donation is a program endorsement that helps bridge equipment vendor relationships and expand job opportunities for students. Strengthening the optics technician workforce takes an entire ecosystem consisting of industry and community partners supporting an academic institution, Dr. Meier explained. “The donation is more than just a donation,” she said. “It’s validation that together we can produce highly-skilled optics technicians.”
“If you think about how fast the optics industry is evolving, we need to make sure we are helping our members succeed.”
Lastly, Steneken wants to increase sharing of information and resources amongst manufacturers to better their companies and the industry. “We call it ’coopetition.’ We’re working together to make each other better,” Steneken said. He believes optics manufacturers should share production methods and consumable advancements while working together on government relations and lobbying activities. Steneken says these collaborations are already taking place in clusters around the country, and they will continue to grow. “APOMA, in close partnership with AmeriCOM, should be the catalyst for this. We need to be the rising tide that lifts all boats,” he added.
Steneken intends to formalize these priorities as part of a job description for the new full-time director. He hopes to share his plan for the position with APOMA members at OptiFab 2023 this fall, after which the leadership team will engage in a national search for candidates.
“If you think about how fast the optics industry is evolving, we need to make sure we are helping our members succeed,” he said.
It all started from a spare bedroom with a Labrador retriever named Thor. That’s where Alex Cable launched his optical equipment company in 1989. While working at Bell Labs, Cable bought a milling machine to design and build optomechanical parts in his spare time. Once sales grew enough to support a full-time effort, Cable launched Thorlabs named after his beloved Lab, Thor.
Today, Thorlabs has 15 substantial design and production facilities located in nine countries around the world – including its latest acquisition in a community at the heart of the optics technology industry.
This January, Thorlabs announced its acquisition of JML Optical Industries, a custom designer and manufacturer of precision optics in Rochester, NY. The agreement adds JML’s 70,000 square feet of space dedicated to the design, production, and testing of aspherical, spherical, plano, cylindrical, and acylindrical lenses and multi-element optical devices.
The JML Optical team will remain in Rochester, New York and form a new Thorlabs entity called Thorlabs Lens Systems, Inc. (TLS). Operating as an R&D and production facility, TLS will add to Thorlabs’ existing optics manufacturing footprint, which currently occupies 120,000 square feet of vertically integrated production space within Thorlabs’ campus of buildings in Newton, NJ and another 24,000 square feet within its facilities in South Carolina and California.
“Having a significant design and manufacturing presence in Rochester, the epicenter of one of the most significant and vibrant communities within the United States for optics technology, will further enhance our ability to provide the innovations needed for future advancements in photonics,” said Bill Donovan, Business Unit Leader of Thorlabs’ Optics Division.
Thorlabs sells approximately 20,000 different products, about 90% of which are made in-house, giving Thorlabs greater control over design, manufacturing, quality, and distribution. Their successful business model also showcases the need for a strong optics technician workforce. “We need to continue identifying, recruiting, training and retaining the next generation of precision optics technicians,” said Thorlabs President Jennifer Cable. “A stronger optics workforce directly impacts our growth strategy and allows us to innovate quickly to meet the needs of our customer base. In addition, creating these career pathways provides growth opportunities for current and future employees while building back manufacturing on U.S. soil.”
“We see this combination as an excellent opportunity to increase exposure to our products through the extensive global reach of Thorlabs,” said Bob Bicksler, President & CEO of JML Optical.
To that end, Thorlabs partners with AmeriCOM in its national effort to grow the precision optics workforce. The company provides technical expertise as well as discounted equipment to academic institutions that establish optics training labs through AmeriCOM.
Outside its multiple locations in the United States, Thorlabs has offices in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and employs nearly 2,500 people. With annual sales reaching $500 million, the company has come a long way from one employee in a spare bedroom in New Jersey.
Front Range Community College (FRCC) in Colorado is aggressively growing its Optics Technician Training Program and recently showcased its progress before a national audience. Dr. Amanda Meier, Optics Technology Program Director, has ambitious goals. She wants to build the FRCC program and graduate a steady pipeline of technicians feeding the optics manufacturing workforce.
What better opportunity to highlight the program than the 2022 APOMA Tech Workshop featuring optics manufacturing employers from around the country?
APOMA (American Precision Optics Manufacturers’ Association) chose Boulder, Colorado as its recent conference location to highlight the vast optics and photonics community, including the growing academic base.
The gathering kicked-off with an open house at FRCC’s Center for Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) where industry leaders got to see first-hand how Dr. Meier and her staff are preparing students for careers in optics manufacturing. Attendees also learned why these community college-based programs need their continued support.
“We need them as much as they need us,” Dr. Meier explained. “I wanted these national partners through APOMA to understand that what we’re building really depends on their industry support.”
The FRCC optics program is the hub of an AmeriCOM regional optics ecosystem, which brings together government, community, and industry partners.
Dr. Alexis Vogt, the AmeriCOM Executive Director of Workforce and Higher Education and the endowed chair of the Optical Systems Technology program at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, worked with Dr. Meier to establish the FRCC program. “A strong academic partner is integral to the ecosystem’s success,” Dr. Vogt said. “With the right support, our academic partners can identify and train the next generation of technicians who can walk straight from the classroom to the shop floor with the skills they need to contribute right away.”
FRCC currently offers a one-year certificate program and a two-year Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) degree. Fourteen students enrolled in the fall 2022 semester—nearly doubling enrollees from the previous year. FRCC plans to continue the growth trend this upcoming fall. The college also hopes to continue strengthening relationships with industry partners, through events like the APOMA conference, to help grow its program.
APOMA brought nearly three dozen optics industry professionals to tour FRCC’s optics facility. “There were a handful of companies we’d spoken with over the last several months about equipment procurement. So they were excited to see what we had set up,” Dr. Meier explained. She said she also got to speak with employers about the specific skills, experience, and expertise they seek from new employees so she can incorporate it in her curriculum. “I want to understand their demand and what it is they want their employees to really know,” she said.
Dr. Meier also established an Advisory Council with industry leaders drawn from the Colorado Photonics Industry Association (CPIA) who consult as she grows the program. She is also in the process of onboarding several new instructors. With APOMA highlighting FRCC during its biennial conference, Dr. Meier says there’s no telling how fast the program can grow. “I can’t wait to see where we are in five years,” she said.
You’ll find a full recap of the APOMA Colorado Tech Workshop here.
We talked to John Pietruszka, a Technical Specialist at Lumetrics and an Adjunct Instructor teaching Optical Systems Technology at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY. John has some answers – including a misconception about teaching he wishes he’d known sooner.
Why did you decide to become an adjunct instructor?
I thought about it early in my career, but never found the right fit. I was speaking to another optics adjunct instructor at MCC and expressed my interest. He put out some feelers and helped me get this opportunity. The urgent need for skilled precision optics professionals combined with my many years of experience in precision optical manufacturing led me to the conclusion it was time to give back.
What has been your most memorable teaching experience?
There have been many! Since I teach the more hands-on aspect of the profession, it is always exciting to watch a student connect the theoretical with the practical application and see the proverbial light bulb go on. It’s great to work with students who have a deep interest. They show up before class and stay after. We get quite a bit of that because of the hands-on way we teach.
It sounds like you wish you’d started teaching sooner.
Honestly, I didn’t really think I had the qualifications. I thought I needed a masters or doctorate degree. But MCC wanted people who have been in the industry and crafted lenses – someone who’s actually had their hands on the equipment. For adjunct instructors, the colleges and students really value the experience on the shop floor. I wish I’d known that sooner.
Has your teaching experience benefitted your company’s recruiting efforts?
Teaching at MCC has helped us find the best and brightest. For example, we currently have a first-year student working for us part time. In fact, she has become a great asset to our manufacturing department and we hope to retain her full time when she graduates. To support her efforts, we are currently working with MCC to help her get college credit for her work here at our company.
What advice do you have for skilled optics professionals considering adjunct teaching?
Reach out to your local community college optics program to get started. Talk to any adjuncts that are in the department. Talk to your employer. The industry needs you. Your experiences with manufacturing, testing, and assembly of precision optical systems greatly benefits these future professionals and the optics industry overall.
Precision optics professionals can help pass on valuable skills and insights to the next generation of technicians. This effort is imperative to help strengthen our national precision optics manufacturing workforce.
Our VP of Government and Partnerships, Tom Battley, moderated a Q&A with photonics industry executives and Montana Senator Daines at SPIE’s Photonics Industry Summit in Washington, D.C. Check out the Summit highlights here.
The 2022 SPIE Optics + Photonics conference in San Diego included more than 2,000 presentations and the latest industry news with 48 conference seminars. For a handful of students in an optics training program, a trip to SPIE O+P offered much more: a chance to showcase their program – and themselves – on a national stage.
Nine students from the Monroe Community College (MCC) Optical Systems Technology Program in Rochester, NY, attended the conference in August hoping to network with optics professionals and learn more about the industry. In meeting with industry experts and potential employers about their own career prospects, students also validated how MCC’s program has positioned them to be job-ready.
“We have a national reputation for training and producing highly skilled optics technicians,” said MCC optics professor Mike Pomerantz. “These types of conferences help our students realize their skills are highly sought after.”
The significant demand for skilled optics technicians is widely discussed at national optics conferences including SPIE O+P. Four foundational issues currently contribute to the shortfall:
The American Center for Optics Manufacturing (AmeriCOM), a nationwide consortium working with the Department of Defense, has recently embarked on a $34 million project intended to help strengthen and boost the domestic precision optics industry, including helping more people get into these high-paying jobs. MCC is the flagship program of AmeriCOM’s workforce development initiative. AmeriCOM is leading a national effort to help meet the workforce demand by replicating the optics ecosystem that includes MCC and the regional optics industry cluster in several regions around the country.
The MCC training model, anchored by one-year certificate and two-year associate degree granting programs is led by Dr. Alexis Vogt, professor and Endowed Chair of the Optical Systems Technology Program at MCC and the AmeriCOM Executive Director of Workforce and Higher Education. She says conferences like SPIE O+P highlight the need to produce more skilled optics technicians. “Nearly everyone we speak with talks about how badly they need more optics technicians. At MCC, we are certifying and graduating more students than ever before. But it’s still not enough to even meet just our local demand in western New York,” she explained.
During their trip to SPIE O+P, the MCC students also toured MKS Instruments in Irvine, CA. The facility included computer numerical control (CNC) machining, an enclosed metrology lab, Class 100 clean room space, and serial number 0001 of an ion-beam device.
AmeriCOM Vice President of Government and Partnerships, Tom Battley, accompanied the MCC students on the tour. He said MKS leaders were impressed with the cohort. “They would have hired every single student on the spot and were very impressed with their training, insightful questions, and understanding of the shop floor.”
This is a premier optics event, being held Nov. 9-11, 2022 in Boulder, CO. Courses and speakers will focus on the most pressing topics facing the industry today. Signature talks will cover deep knowledge of ISO10110 standards, ITAR, and state-of-the-art optical manufacturing techniques.
AmeriCOM and its partners will be represented by three speakers: