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:

  1. The pool of skilled optics technicians is aging out of the workforce with no pipeline of workers to replenish it.
  2. Existing precision optics manufacturing jobs have moved offshore, eroding the pipeline of future workers.
  3. The cultural perception of education has changed to value traditional 4-year college degrees over skilled trade programs.
  4. Academia struggles with the high costs of workforce development programs.

“The more and more that I tour optics facilities, the more and more I realize MCC, Monroe Community College, has prepared me so well for my future in optics.”

Luke Edelman, MCC optics student

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.

Students, educators and AmeriCOM representatives tour MKS Instruments.

“It was so exciting to see all the machines I’m familiar with that I learned to operate at MCC.  It was so cool to know that the machines I know are all across the country and that I can find a job anywhere I wanted.”

Jimmie Salone, MCC optics student

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.”

During a poster reception, MCC students enjoyed networking with scientists, educators and company representatives from around the country.

Learn more.

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:

Learn more.

A question popped up in the chat box during Dr. Alexis Vogt’s presentation at the Photonics Spectra Conference 2022. Dr. Vogt is Executive Director of Workforce and Higher Education at AmeriCOM. An attendee wanted to know how a small optics business can help in AmeriCOM’s national effort to support the increasing complexity and growing manufacturing requirements of the optics industry. A mission of that magnitude would seem understandably daunting for any optics company. But Dr. Vogt discussed an often-overlooked path for companies to engage: Apprenticeships.

“We see the apprenticeship program as the secret to creating your workforce for the future.”

– Dr. Alexis Vogt, Executive Director of Workforce and Higher Education, AmeriCOM
Ashley H. – Optics Manufacturing Engineering Technician and first female to complete the Precision Optics Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship.

A Classic Model Supports Future Growth

Many employers are familiar with the general concept. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with related technical instruction in the classroom. When companies invest in apprenticeship programs, they help employees gain additional skills and insights to extend their value at a company, setting up a path for career advancement. For the employer, apprenticeship is a retention strategy, acknowledging the leadership potential of a person already on the team. 

In addition to her role at AmeriCOM, Dr. Vogt is also a tenured professor of optics and the endowed chair of the Optical Systems Technology program at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, where her team established the Precision Optics Manufacturing Technician apprenticeship program.

An Investment Worth Making

“This is a structured ‘Earn and Learn’ program,” Dr. Vogt explained in her presentation. But while the idea of apprenticeships is a win-win for employees and employers, Dr. Vogt points to two specific challenges that have historically impeded precision optics apprenticeship programs.

First, companies must be willing to invest in them. It takes time and effort to set up the internal systems needed to establish and maintain successful programs. Second, there is a significant lack of schools to partner with—especially when compared to other trades that may be competing for similar students.

Other industries have overcome both challenges by embedding apprenticeships within their HR strategy of attracting, retaining, and developing top talent. As the demand for apprenticeship training increased, the supply of schools offering the training followed. “Other professions like plumbers, electricians, welders, and mechanics have many trade schools to partner with for apprenticeship programs,” Dr. Vogt explained. 

According to apprenticeships.gov, 94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship program retain employment. Further, AmericanProgress.org reports that “apprentices tend to stay longer with companies that are willing to invest time and money into their career development.” These statistics highlight why robust apprenticeship programs can be a viable solution to the precision optics industry’s critical shortage of skilled technicians.

Jimmie S. – Advanced from an Optics Student to Apprentice to an Optics Technician.

Maximizing a Team’s Potential

Optimax Systems, Inc., self-described as “America’s largest optics prototype manufacturer,” was the first company to start an apprenticeship program with MCC. Three years in duration, this on-the-job training includes rotations throughout all the departments at the company. These rotations provide apprentices exposure to different career paths and prepare them with a variety of skills that will increase their value and expertise as optics technicians. Apprentices must take two classes from a community college each year, and Optimax reimburses the tuition costs. When workers complete the apprenticeship, they earn enough credits for the MCC Optical System Technology certificate. With a few additional courses, they can also earn the Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree.

Other companies have quickly followed. Today, MCC, working with the American Precision Optics Manufacturing Association (APOMA), has apprenticeship programs with JML Optical, Sydor, LaCroix Precision Optics, Nu-Tek Precision Optical, and OptiPro. MCC and APOMA also created online training to further support apprenticeship programs around the country.  

Getting a Program Underway

Ross Micali is the National Work-Based Learning Coordinator for the Optical Systems Technology program at MCC. He describes a five-step process to establish an Optics Manufacturing Technician (OMT) apprenticeship program:

  1. Determine the company’s critical work functions for on-the-job learning.
  2. Identify related technical instruction aligned to the work functions.
  3. Complete and submit an application.
  4. Receive application approval.
  5. Identify, select, and register apprentices.

Micali, who is available to assist optics companies interested in setting up an apprenticeship program, adds that employers may be eligible for state and federal grant funding and tax credits once their program is underway. 

As Dr. Vogt concluded her presentation at Photonics Spectra Conference 2022, she offered AmeriCOM’s support to companies interested in helping address the critical workforce shortage of precision optics technicians. She also encouraged optics manufacturing companies to conduct tours of their facilities to prospective students and employees, and to participate in regional job fairs. That, plus establishing an apprenticeship program, can create a steady pipeline of high-skilled optics technicians to help meet the demand for such workers.

“That’s key. We really need to grow that area,” Dr. Vogt said. “We encourage that it becomes part of every optics company’s long-term HR strategy.”

Interested in establishing an apprenticeship program at your company? Click here to contact AmeriCOM for more information.

AmeriCOM hosted Student Day at OptiFab 2021, introducing hundreds of high school and college students to potential career opportunities in optics. Engaging students – as early as middle and high school – is critical for AmeriCOM to meet its goals for expanding the pipeline of skilled optics technicians.

Students at OptiFab fanning out to explore the conference

The morning began with Dr. Alexis Vogt, AmeriCOM Workforce and Higher Education Executive Director, addressing students from regional schools including Monroe Community College, Hilton High School, Webster Thomas High School, Vertus Charter School, and BOCES. Representatives from University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and University of California, Los Angeles also attended the briefing.  

Dr. Alexis Vogt welcoming students to Optifab 2021

Dr. Vogt inspired the audience with a stirring presentation on the global need for skilled optics technicians.  With eyes wide open on the career possibilities, the excited students turned loose on the exhibition hall to meet with exhibitors.

Here’s a quick look at what had attendees talking.

Genesee Vega

Genesee is a mother of three children who left the veterinary field in search of a better career. She entered an apprenticeship program with Sydor Optics and talks about how it changed her life.

“It allows me to take classes while working full time to support my family, and also get a degree in optics.”

“When I started schooling and started being in the optics field, it blew my mind how much optics is actually a part of everything we do.”

“If you’re thinking about it, definitely just go for it. It’s a good opportunity.  You can travel around the world doing it. There are so many opportunities, so many jobs available to you.  Whether you have no experience, or good experience, or minimal experience, a lot of companies are willing to hire on a train basis.”

Dr. Alexis Vogt

Dr. Vogt is AmeriCOM’s Workforce and Higher Education Executive Director. She is also the Endowed Chair and Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College (MCC). At OptiFab 2021, she spoke with students about precision optics as a potential career path.

“This is a great field for everybody. High school students, but also career changers. Whether they’re early career, or mid-career, or even later career. There are so many opportunities that are available. People can re-enter into a brand-new career — a career that’s revolutionizing the way in which we live.”

“You don’t realize just how enormous this field is and when you’re stepping into it you don’t know where you’ll end up.”

Jaiden Minott

Jaiden is a student at Monroe Community College (MCC) who says he was “hooked right away” when Dr. Vogt spoke to his high-school class about precision optics. He is now in the Corning Technician Pipeline Program where he’s found a great balance between work and school.

“The program that I’m in, they only want me working eight hours a week because they want me to focus on school.  So it’s pretty easy right now to balance between the two because I’m only working once a week and have school the rest of the week.”

“If you like a challenge and you like physics and you like math, you’ll definitely like optics a lot.”

Dr. Amanda Meier

Dr. Meier is the Director of Optics Technology Program at Front Range Community College in Colorado.  She loves introducing students to the world of optics, and especially enjoys the eye-opening moment when students first realize how ubiquitous optics are.

“We touch so many things that we don’t even realize have different science and technologies behind them.  I think that’s the best part of now why we get to teach this and now why I’m so happy to be part of teaching this because you get to see that moment with students that have no idea.  I love it.”

Briana Kilpatrick-Grant

Briana is a student at Monroe Community College (MCC) who says her college experience exposed her to multiple career paths in precision optics.

“I chose MCC because it was versatile in its curriculum and it was also diverse. It was also a place where a lot of opportunities are accessible. ”

“There’s a lot of hands-on stuff that is very dexterity-driven, very hand-eye coordination driven, very memory-based and patter-based driven. So I think if somebody was looking to get into optics and they have those qualities I would say you should try it. You never know, until you try, what you’re capable of.”