Central Florida faces a growing demand for precision optics technicians. Industry giants like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and L3Harris Technologies rely on technicians to help produce complex lenses for defense and national security systems. Other area optics manufacturers also have unfilled technician jobs as they produce precision lenses for everyday consumer applications. Now help is on the way. Valencia College in Orlando launched the inaugural cohort of its Precision Optics, Photonics, and Fiber Optics Technician training course which aims to have students job-ready in less than four months.
Sixteen students registered for the program from a variety of backgrounds including a pharmacy tech, a nurse, a chef, a Lockheed Martin employee, two Lockheed Martin family members, two veterans, a Disney security officer, and a 30-year veteran from the construction industry. The program began this month and is already at full capacity with a waiting list. Students are training on optics fabrication, optical assembly, photonics, and fiber optics. Upon completing the 15-week program, students can earn three nationally-recognized certifications and may be a qualified candidate for precision optics technician, optics assembler, or photonics technician jobs.
Valencia worked closely with AmeriCOM which purchased $1.2M in lab teaching equipment and provided counsel on lab design and curriculum. Industry partners including Lockheed Martin, LightPath, Ocean Insight, Critical Frequency, Jenoptik, and Chronos Photonics and other members of the Florida Photonics Cluster helped develop the program.
Federal funding and policy are critical to the success of the optics, photonics, imaging, and laser industries which help support virtually every sector of the U.S. economy. For a second year in a row, a capacity crowd convened at the nation’s capital in September to hear directly from policymakers about their priorities and issues that affect our industry at SPIE’s Photonics Industry Summit.
Rep. Joseph Morelle (NY-25), co-chair of the Congressional Optics and Photonics Caucus, spoke at a special session titled “Potential Legislative Impacts on the Optics and Photonics Industry.” The significance of national policy was not lost on attendees, many of whom participated in last year’s inaugural summit just six weeks after the CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law. The state of progress on many of the initiatives introduced by that legislation prompted frequent questions and breakout discussions from attendees throughout the day.
Potential legislation was a key theme throughout the Summit with optics and photonics critical to emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, quantum technology, advanced manufacturing, sensors, clean energy, healthcare, and more. The U.S. and China recently extended their science and technology agreement but are currently renegotiating the terms of the deal. Meanwhile, the first five-year authorization of the U.S. National Quantum Initiative Act ended last month. The act awaits reauthorization with industry leaders eager to hear plans on building the skilled technical workforce to support rapid innovation.
Workforce development was another key theme attendees were eager to discuss. Alexis Vogt, endowed chair and professor of optics at Monroe Community College (MCC) and executive director of workforce and higher education at AmeriCOM, moderated a panel discussion titled, “Workforce Development in Critical Technology Areas.” She highlighted the importance of education and collaboration to strengthen the optics manufacturing workforce, and shared that the Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Engineering Education Program awarded over $5 million to MCC to fund its optics and photonics associate degree programs.
SPIE’s next annual summit will take place in Washington, D.C. on September 25, 2024.
Thousands of optics industry experts and professionals from around the world gathered at North America’s largest optical fabrication exhibition. SPIE and APOMA organized Optifab 2023 in Rochester, NY in mid-October with a full agenda of presentations and activities. AmeriCOM hosted two noteworthy events, and was invited to speak at a third. Our plenary panel and Student Day activities became the buzz of the conference, while our CEO met with precision optics manufacturers to share the organization’s priorities for the industry.
Optics leaders packed the house for AmeriCOM’s Plenary Session, “It Takes an Ecosystem: Building the Precision Optics Industry, One Technician at a Time.” Presenters Blair Unger, Director, Situational Awareness NPD & NH Site Lead, Gentex Corp. and Alexis Vogt, AmeriCOM’s Executive Director of Workforce and Higher Education and Endowed Chair and Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College, examined job positions and salaries in optics manufacturing and the workforce development challenges that are affecting the optics industry. Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Senior Director of Optical Product Development, Edmund Optics led a panel discussion showing how the AmeriCOM optics ecosystem model benefits optics companies who support the ecosystem model.
Panelists agreed all stakeholders must work together to solve workforce development challenges. “We’re in this together,” said Meier. “When industry and community partners support our academic institutions, we can recruit and train more students. When companies hire our students as precision optics technicians, it helps them meet manufacturing demands. That growth is great for the community, so everyone benefits from this effort.”
More than 450 college and high school students attended Student Day at OptiFab, marking the largest student participation in conference history. AmeriCOM co-sponsored the event with Optimax, providing students with backpacks that contained a map for a scavenger hunt for students to use on the exhibit floor to meet and learn about optics employers.
To participate in the scavenger hunt, students were provided a game board with clues about precision optics companies that were exhibiting at OptiFab. Solving each clue would lead students to the company’s booth on the trade show floor. Students met with a company representative and were required to ask a question about the company before receiving a sticker for their game board. Once they collected stickers from participating companies, students were led back to the AmeriCOM booth for prizes. “It’s a fun way to get students thinking about different job opportunities and interacting with employers,” Smith explained.
AmeriCOM would like to thank SPIE and the many companies that participated in the scavenger hunt and donated prizes. Monroe Community College sent the largest delegation with more than 125 students. Nineteen area high schools also participated in Student Day.
The American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association (APOMA) invited AmeriCOM CEO Jeff Ruckman to speak at its general meeting, providing members an update on the organization’s key priorities for strengthening the optics manufacturing industry. Ruckman urged members to engage with their local legislators to support the Congressional Optics and Photonics Caucus co-chaired by Rep. Joseph Morelle (NY-25). Ruckman also amplified Rep. Morelle’s recent calls to support optics manufacturing ecosystems by participating in workforce training initiatives in their home regions. He also urged companies to suggest and participate in the research efforts of AmeriCOM’s Defense Precision Optics Consortium in ways that are relevant to their respective needs. Other presenters included Dr. Du Nguyen, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Dr. Alexis Vogt, Monroe Community College and AmeriCOM; Pat Augino, Optimax & OEOSC; and Caleb Klein, SPIE.
Organizations involved in workforce development, like AmeriCOM, rely directly on community colleges to design and deliver the training programs that result in work-ready technicians. Josanne DeNatale, AmeriCOM’s National Marketing and Workforce Development Operations Director, attended the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Advocacy in Action event in Washington, D.C. in September to learn about how the U.S. Congress is managing current community college and workforce related issues. The event served as a great reminder of the tremendous impact that community colleges have on the lives of anyone looking to build or advance a career in the technical trades.
There are no fewer than 12 legislative priorities for AACC working with the 118th Congress – from the extension of Pell Grant eligibility to cover students in short-term workforce-oriented programs, to the availability of state grants supporting Certified Technical Education (CTE) programs, to the lightening “of the federal regulatory burden so that the Department of Education, community colleges, [and funding sources like AmeriCOM] can work in a more positive, partnership-oriented fashion.” [Source: “Joint Legislative Agenda for the 118th Congress, 2023-24,” a paper from the Association of Community College Trustees and AACC.] Increasing apprenticeship programs including youth apprenticeship programs is also on everyone’s radar. While funding streams are available related to these priorities, what is lacking are coordinated processes that would allow a nationally focused organization like AmeriCOM to readily assist optics ecosystems across the country. Each state’s department of labor, public higher-education systems, and local school districts present unique requirements that prevent us from implementing optics technician training programs in an efficient manner.
Wee-oh-ah was the “word” of the day. It’s the acronym for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), landmark legislation designed to “strengthen and improve our nation’s public workforce system and help Americans, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, into high-quality jobs and careers and help employers hire and retain skilled workers.” [Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration website.] Advocacy efforts are underway to increase funding for state grants under WIOA as well as other workforce and technical education initiatives. In addition, AACC calls for the enhancement of WIOA in order to ensure that “community colleges are part of the leadership apparatus, prioritizing credential attainment, and streamlining reporting requirements.” Credential attainment is central to all of our community college partners in AmeriCOM’s optics ecosystems, especially the fast-track, non-degree programs being delivered. Currently, however, there is not a set of recognized industry credentials, which ties back to the fact that there isn’t an established SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) code for the optics, photonics, imaging, and laser industry with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although numerous challenges exist, the commitment of community colleges to guide their students – from all backgrounds – through their education and into a living-wage career or continued schooling is unwavering and inspiring. Organizations like AmeriCOM that are charged by the Department of Defense to build up manufacturing in the United States must find ways to better support our community college partners. In the same manner that these colleges support their students as they face academic as well as life challenges, so too must we support the educators and administrators at our community colleges as they juggle the additional administrative and teaching assignments that come with the numerous grants and sub-contract awards they are required to fulfill.
With federal policy significantly impacting the optics and photonics industry, AmeriCOM has once again sponsored SPIE’s upcoming Photonics Industry Summit in Washington D.C. later this month.
This marks the second of what is now an annual summit to raise the profile of the optics and photonics industry, while allowing industry leaders to learn more about the priorities of the US government in this technology space. Representatives from more than 150 optics companies are expected to attend, and they will be eager to hear governmental leaders discussing policy, opportunities, and a full slate of hot-topic issues.
Rep. Joseph Morelle (NY-25), chair of the Congressional Optics and Photonics Caucus, will lead a special session titled Potential Legislative Impacts on the Optics and Photonics Industry. With so many sectors of the global economy dependent on optics manufacturing, all industries directly enabled by optics will be on the table for discussion including defense and security, agriculture, energy and environment, healthcare, telecommunications, and more.
Innovation is an important theme for much of the summit. A morning discussion titled Boosting Economic Competitiveness Through Science, Technology, and Innovation will explore opportunities for optics and photonics researchers and industries to partner with federal science agencies in preserving U.S. leadership in critical and emerging technologies. Meanwhile, the “Semiconductor Panel” and “Quantum Panel” discussions will include governmental leaders and experts from those respective industries discussing the challenges and opportunities to drive those industries forward.
Later in the day, Dr. Alexis Vogt, AmeriCOM Executive Director of Workforce and High Education and Endowed Chair and Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College, will lead a panel discussion titled Workforce Development in Critical Technology Areas. The discussion includes speakers from the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center discussing how they can work with industry leaders to grow the STEM workforce needed to meet our technology demands.
The summit concludes with a reception for policy makers and industry leaders who will hear remarks from Rep. Josh Gottheimer, (NJ-5), a member of the Congressional Optics and Photonics Caucus and Thorlabs President and AmeriCOM Board Member Jennifer Cable.
James Losasso has a passion for optics. With 25 years of experience fabricating precision optics for defense, aerospace, telecommunications, and other applications, he also loves to share that passion with the next generation of technicians. James currently teaches OTE 1005 Fabrication of Precision Optics as an adjunct instructor at Front Range Community College (FRCC), one of AmeriCOM’s optics ecosystem hubs. We caught up with James for a quick Q&A about his teaching experience. He offered some insights encouraging others to support the optics industry through teaching.
I wanted to inspire others to get into the optics industry by giving them an experience to allure them into a trade that isn’t very well known. I’ve trained a lot of people during my career and have coached youth sports, so mentoring and teaching is something that comes naturally to me.
Excelitas has been very supportive of not only me, but other employees who have stepped up to assist in building the [FRCC] program. Excelitas has donated equipment, and through our partnership with FRCC we’re trying to create a pipeline of ready-trained technicians and apprentices.
The main benefit is creating a channel between FRCC and Excelitas. Technicians that go through the courses come into the industry with a good amount of knowledge and can walk right into most jobs. Teaching has also given me the skills to transition into a new role as a Technical Training Manager at the company.
My first class was a little nerve racking, not knowing if my lesson plan was boring or would keep the students engaged. I think I tried too hard to not fumble my words and sound professional. But it didn’t take long to get comfortable.
I would say the most gratifying part of teaching is seeing people learn something about a trade which has been a passion of mine that they never knew existed. Also, the chance to meet new people and hear the success stories of former students who come back and express gratitude for my involvement.
Teaching is a lot of work for an instructor that also has a full-time career, but the upside is worth it. Teaching is a selfless service and the reward is giving knowledge and skills to students without expecting anything in return. The joy of teaching is seeing those success stories from students you had the opportunity to work with, some of whom may become a member of your production team.
If it seems counterproductive to encourage your top employees to spend less time at work, then allowing them to leave on “company time” may sound downright imprudent. Yet every year, high-performing employees at Thorlabs in Newton, NJ take time away from work to teach optics classes as adjunct instructors at Sussex County Community College (SCCC). Company leaders call it a wise investment that has already paid dividends.
Navid Entezarian is a Business Development Manager at Thorlabs who previously taught as an adjunct instructor. He has helped grow the company’s engagement with SCCC, and now five Thorlabs employees currently teach at the college. Entezarian said there is a common profile of workers who would make a good instructor. “We look for people who know the subject and, more importantly, communicate well,” he explained. “Very often this is the employee who serves as a mentor in your shop or helps to onboard new workers.”
“I am a mentor by nature, so helping others learn a new skill helps me feel fulfilled,” said QC Supervisor Sarah Hobaugh who teaches Metrology and Analysis 1 and 2. “My part of their education is fully hands-on. There is a time where everything comes together and there is an “A-HA!” moment. It is fun and rewarding to watch them get a deeper understanding of optics.”
“I personally know what it’s like to come into this field with no experience,” said CNC Production Supervisor Matt DeBree. “I can now help future technicians build their knowledge of optics and manufacturing.” DeBree teaches CNC 1 and 2 at SCCC and said his work as an adjunct instructor helps students and the companies that hire them. “This gives them great confidence and excitement in the field and eases the training process on the employer.”
The adjunct instructors at Thorlabs have another common characteristic. They all studied optics at the community college where they now teach. By tapping into former students, the company has established a stable pipeline of workers who want to give back to the program that helped train them. As a result, the SCCC program continues to graduate job-ready technicians for Thorlabs to hire.
“We’ve created a self-fulfilling cycle to help us meet the demand for precision optics technicians.”Navid Entezarian
Supporting adjunct instructors came with challenges for Thorlabs. The most ideal teaching candidates were often the busiest. Those workers also managed teams or carried significant responsibilities. The teaching commitment requires three to four hours of class time per week, plus an additional three to nine hours of lesson preparation. Thorlabs incentivized its workers by allowing them to teach courses, and earn money from SCCC, while on company time. “This is an investment,” Entezarian said. He explained supporting adjunct faculty is necessary to help build the optics manufacturing workforce. “As a company, if you never take the time, you are never going to have the time. No one is going to do this for us. We have to do it ourselves.”
In addition to establishing a pipeline of skilled labor from which to hire, supporting adjunct teaching has created an unintended benefit of strengthening the company culture. There is a strong camaraderie among the instructors (and five additional former instructors) who share curriculum and lecture notes. Instructors also call on colleagues with expertise in a particular area to guest lecture on occasion.
With a demonstrable benefit to students, instructors, and employers, DeBree called his decision to pursue adjunct teaching a no-brainer. “Teaching these courses has helped me greatly in many areas,” he said. “It helped me improve my own processes in the cell, which in turn benefited my employer. It has really been a win-win-win scenario.”
Luke Edelman worked for minimum wage as a contractor and handyman. He clearly remembers the 98-degree day he was in a cramped crawl space beneath an apartment complex, clad in a thick Tyvek suit with goggles and facemask, wading through a lake of raw sewage, to fix a “poop pipe.” He slipped on the slanted wall of the crawl space and splashed the gray water into his face.
Sitting in his car during a lunch break from the job, Luke listened to Connections hosted by Evan Dawson on NPR. The host was interviewing Dr. Alexis Vogt, Endowed Chair & Associate Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY. Luke didn’t know it at the time, but hearing that interview started him on a new path that would lead to one of the world’s most impressive universities.
Luke returned to his job after the break. “I thought there was something more to life than this,” he said. He kept thinking about the interview and decided to reach out to MCC about its Optics Technology Program. “The rest is history,” he said.
Luke enrolled in MCC’s program in August 2021. A year later, he received information about a summer internship opportunity at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory which develops advanced technologies to meet critical national security needs. Though the lab rejected Luke’s application, it did accept another MCC student. But Luke stayed positive. With another year of training, he applied to MIT’s program again. This time he got in.
“Look it up. Find out what Optics is. Be curious. Never stop learning.”Luke Edelman
This summer has been a whirlwind for Luke. He earned an Associate Degree in Precision Optics from MCC in June. Shortly after, he started his internship at Lincoln Laboratory where he is working on lens alignment using an OptiCentric machine. Luke says he’s excited the lab entrusts him with some sensitive work as well.
So what’s next? Luke would love to continue working with Lincoln Laboratory beyond his summer internship. For now, he is looking for an optics job in Boston to take a step toward that goal. He also wants to encourage others who might be where he was just a few years ago– in a low-potential job with few prospects. Optics opened a world of possibilities for Luke after he heard the interview with Dr. Vogt. He just had to take the first step. Luke said if he did it, others can too.
Check out this short clip from Luke as he reflects on his optics journey.
AmeriCOM is excited to introduce seven new board members to help drive our three-pronged mission of creating workforce training programs, developing optics manufacturing technologies, and transitioning those technologies from research into operations. The leaders represent a cross-section of optics manufacturers from across the country. The announcement signifies our growth as we continue to strengthen the nation’s precision optics manufacturing industry.
The new board members include:
The new members join existing board members Tom Battley, Vice President Government and Partnerships, AmeriCOM and Executive Director of Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster and New York Photonics; Mike Bechtold, Chair, AmeriCOM Board and President, OptiPro Systems; Jeff Ruckman, CEO and President, AmeriCOM; and Kirk Warden, President, LaCroix Precision Optics.
“Our new board brings strategic leadership to help us engage in meaningful industry, academic, community, and governmental relationships. By leveraging each of these sectors, we can continue our critical work of strengthening national security through a stronger optics manufacturing base.”Mike Bechtold
The capacity of the nation’s optics industrial manufacturing base is a growing national security concern. The U.S. military depends on high-precision optics for many applications from night vision goggles to hypersonic missiles. Affordable, U.S.-manufactured, advanced optics are needed to meet the current and future demand of military systems. AmeriCOM is addressing this challenge by developing advanced optic manufacturing technologies, testing equipment, and the specialized materials required to support scalable manufacturing. In addition, optics manufacturing ecosystems are being established in multiple key regions throughout the U.S. to provide training programs for optics technicians.
To date, new training sites have been established in Boulder, CO; Newton, NJ; and Orlando, FL while AmeriCOM continues to support and grow the existing optics ecosystem in Rochester, NY. The new board will look to build on this early success. “We are already seeing the impact of these ecosystems as local manufacturing companies and partners work with community colleges to attract students into optics training programs,” Bechtold said. “We hope to serve as a force multiplier to identify and foster more ecosystems across the country.”
Birgit Gillman started her optics career at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics and the Center for Optics Manufacturing (COM). She said her work on the AmeriCOM board will allow her to pay forward the support and mentorship she once received. “I am thrilled to be part of this team and look forward to helping make the same positive impact on the next generation of students, opticians, and technicians that COM made on me in the 90’s,” Gillman said. “The role models, mentors, and exciting research projects hooked me on the field of optics manufacturing. Working with AmeriCOM allows me a chance to give back to this growing industry.”
Rick Plympton said he is excited to join the board to help support its national security efforts. “I am committed to developing capabilities and capacity that give the American military a unique advantage in the field,” said Plympton. “AmeriCOM has the resources to accelerate development of innovative photonic solutions and training programs to meet the growing workforce needs of the nation’s optics industry. I look forward to serving on the AmeriCOM board to help direct activities for maximum reward.”
Whether they are starting a full-time job at a local optics manufacturing company, gaining experience at an internship with Lockheed Martin, or pursuing additional education, this past spring’s cohort of college optics graduates are moving on to impressive opportunities. Here’s a quick look at the 2022-2023 academic year graduation numbers from community college optics programs, and a snapshot of where some of those students are headed next:
Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, the nation’s largest and longest-standing optics manufacturing training program, recognized 25 students for completing its Optical Systems Technology Certificate Program. Of those students, 19 are continuing their education to earn MCC’s Optical Systems Technology Associate Degree. Many of those students are also working part-time at local manufacturers while pursuing their degree. Other students have lined up optics jobs or internship opportunities, including one student accepted into the NASA Summer Internship program and another accepted into the Corning Technician Pipeline Program.
In addition, 29 students earned an Associate Degree from MCC’s Optical Systems Technology Program. Many of them are jumping into careers at optics manufacturers including Lumetrics, Optimax Systems, Vertex Optics, Sydor Optics, Thorlabs, Advanced Glass Industries, Qualitrol, Corning, and Subcom. Other graduates are continuing their education at a traditional four-year college through the 2+2 Transfer Program, while some grads have landed internships at NASA, Lockheed Martin, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
Front Range Community College (FRCC) in Boulder, CO, an AmeriCOM partner college that is only in its third year of operation, graduated eight students from its one-year certificate program. Many of those students are moving on to earn their two-year Associate Degree. One graduate accepted a job with Areté Associates, an engineering company that develops sensing technologies. Another student is continuing an existing job with Meadowlark Optics in Colorado.
Students at Sussex County Community College (SCCC) in Newton, NJ experienced similar success. SCCC started its Associate Degree program in 2018 and had eight students in its Spring 2023 cohort. Three more students are enrolled as part of an apprenticeship program with Esco Optics. Additionally, over the last several years, more than 30 high school students have taken optics courses and earned credit at SCCC through its dual-enrollment program.
No matter where they are headed next, there is no question that these students are quickly gaining employment in a field that has immense growth opportunities thanks to these one and two-year training programs.
It’s not your typical summer vacation, and these aren’t your typical high schoolers. Fourteen students from Boulder Prep High School in Colorado completed an intensive and immersive summer course learning about optics and photonics. The four-day program included several hands-on activities and tours of local manufacturing companies including Quantinuum, Excelitas, and Thorlabs.
Dr. Amanda Meier leads the Optics Technology Program at Front Range Community College (FRCC) and helped teach the course with AmeriCOM Advisory Group member Sterling Backus from Thorlabs.
“This course opened up a whole new world for these students,” said Dr. Meier. “They not only learned about optics and optics careers, they also got to hear from local employers who are eager to hire skilled technicians.”
The summer intensive course is part of AmeriCOM’s effort to expose more high school students to optics and help increase enrollment in college-level optics programs. Students participated in several learning activities including an optics lab on reflection, refraction, and polarization. The high schoolers also used a laser to draw in the air and captured the images on a phone to make dramatic artwork.
Boulder Prep is a charter school founded to help engage students who were frustrated with the traditional high school environment. The school’s website states, “We encourage and support students to value the pursuit of education as a way to improve their own lives.” Dr. Meier noted how the summer intensive course, and optics careers in general, align with the school’s focus.
“Precision optics manufacturing is a rewarding, viable, career path for many students who don’t want a traditional four-year college experience. We hope to take more students through this program every year.”
Students returned to the FRCC campus on the camp’s last day and participated in a career discussion with local employers. “This is how we strengthen our precision optics manufacturing workforce,” Dr. Meier said. “We need to continue connecting the high school and college communities with our industry partners to show them what is possible.”
High school students may be on summer vacation but many science teachers were back in the classroom this month learning how to teach optics. Sussex County Community College (SCCC) hosted the Careers in Optics Technology Professional Development Workshop in collaboration with AmeriCOM. This first-of-its-kind workshop was one more AmeriCOM initiative to strengthen the nation’s optics manufacturing base.
Science teachers from New Jersey participated in the program which started with a basic introduction on the prevalence of optics and the demand for skilled optics technicians. “Many teachers aren’t aware that the optics manufacturing industry offers viable, fulfilling careers for their students,” said Donna Smith, Education Liaison, AmeriCOM. “Once teachers learned about the importance of the optics industry, they immediately recognized optics could be a great path for their students who may not consider a traditional four-year college.”
Smith introduced the teachers to AmeriCOM’s online Resource Center, which includes curriculum, education tools, and classroom assignments – everything a teacher could need to teach optics in a high school classroom. The Resource Center also includes fun videos and activities for younger students from grades 1-8.
Brian Lake, Supervisor of the Optics Technology Program at SCCC, led teachers on a tour of the college’s optics lab and talked about how the program prepares students for immediate careers. “There are many manufacturing companies across New Jersey ready to hire precision optics technicians,” Lake said. “The more high school students we can feed into our program, the more we can help local employers fill those jobs.”
Jennifer Nicholson was the first to register for the three-day workshop. Though she currently teaches optics at Sussex Tech High School, she wanted to learn more about how she can better prepare her students for this career path.
“I loved all of the hands-on activities like the metrology lab and the mirror maze activity,” Nicholson said. “I got a lot of new ideas that I know will help get my students hooked on optics.”Jennifer Nicholson
Smith said she hoped teachers would take away four key lessons from the workshop:
• Optics provides great career opportunities for their students.
• Teaching optics is doable in a high school classroom.
• Manufacturing companies have a huge need for technicians.
• Teachers might initiate a dual-credit program at their schools to enable high school students to gain college credit at SCCC or other community colleges around the country.
Also in July, Smith helped organize and teach a second workshop at Colorado’s Front Range Community College (FRCC) with Dr. Amanda Meier, Optics Technology Program Director at FRCC. Teachers at both workshops received Continuing Education credit for their participation.
Enrique ‘Ricky’ Gomez joined the United States Navy in 2009, which helped him pay for college where he studied engineering. He enjoyed his time in the military, serving active duty for four years before enrolling in an associate degree program in engineering sciences. But when a friend suggested he take a job interview at a nearby company, Ricky unknowingly started on a new path– one that would utilize his military training and help benefit the Navy he proudly served.
Ricky says he didn’t know much about precision optics when he took an interview at Thorlabs in Newton, NJ in 2018. “I looked at the job description and did as much research as I could,” he said. His preparation helped land a position as a Thin Film Coating Technician. The job immediately appealed to him as he found parallels with his military experience.
“In deployment, when something goes wrong you have to be resourceful and solve problems. There is a strict attention to detail in military work that translates well when it comes to optics.”Ricky Gomez
Ricky was already four semesters into his engineering program, but he knew he needed to make a change. He soon transferred to Sussex County Community College (SCCC) to study optics technology. He continued working full-time while attending school part-time to earn his associate degree. The decision has already paid off. He recently earned a “Team Lead” designation which he hopes will position him for more management responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Ricky continues to serve the Navy as a reservist. He works as a mechanic for construction equipment at Fort Dix one weekend a month, and is sent to another base two weeks a year. Ricky recognizes the military’s strong demand for precision optics. “I see optics systems all the time during my work as a reservist. All the lenses have coatings which ties back to my job,” he explained.
Ricky admits he doesn’t often think about how his civilian optics career impacts the military he serves. But he says one similarity can’t be overlooked. “Military and optics are both very fulfilling,” Ricky said. “I like doing something where I feel I can contribute.”
Look up the many tributes to Jay Morgan Eastman upon his recent passing and you will see the words creative, generous, brilliant, humble, and entrepreneurial. And you will see this passage:
“His talents knew no limits;
he could build or repair anything.”
Jay Eastman envisioned — and saw to the building of — what is today the American Center for Optics Manufacturing. Our team honors his legacy every time a new optics technician realizes the range of their own talents and proudly enters the workforce in companies across the United States. Every year, more people are doing just that thanks to an idea Eastman sparked nearly a decade ago.
In 2013, Jay Eastman began working with the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster (RRPC) to establish a center for optics manufacturing. The first step was securing a New York State grant through the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. The grant funded a big-ticket, shared-use piece of infrared metrology equipment for RRPC members. This led to an idea to expand efforts beyond the Rochester region and create a national consortium for optics manufacturing.
During numerous trips to Washington D.C. over the next several years, Eastman worked with RRPC Executive Director Tom Battley and other stakeholders to promote the concept of a larger optics manufacturing center based in Rochester, NY. Battley called Eastman “our voice” for the concept of a laboratory setting to develop the manufacturing technology solutions for America’s defense precision optics manufacturing industry. He added it was Eastman who came up with the name “American Center for Optics Manufacturing.”
The two also encouraged the New York delegation to establish a congressional optics and photonics Caucus. Today, the bi-partisan Congressional Caucus is co-chaired by Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY) and Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), and includes 11 other members representing districts around the country.
The optics manufacturing industry’s innovation and capacity are largely dependent on a strong workforce of skilled optics technicians. It has been estimated that, for every optics engineer focused on manufacturing innovation, a minimum of 10 optics technicians are needed to bring the innovation to market. Unfortunately, thousands of optics and photonics jobs remain open nationwide, so Eastman took on a new challenge.
Prompted by Dr. Alexis Vogt, in her new position as head of the Optical Systems Technology program at Monroe Community College (MCC), Eastman sought to build a national training program to increase the supply of skilled optics technicians. In 2018, Eastman worked with Battley to host the AmeriCOM symposium in Rochester which highlighted the need for such a program.
The event featured keynote speaker Adele Ratcliff, Director, Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) Program at United States Department of Defense. The symposium convened many other key stakeholders and speakers including Dr. Vogt and Jeff Ruckman, formerly with the Center for Optics Manufacturing and most recently retired from Lockheed Martin. Ruckman now serves as AmeriCOM President and CEO.
In cooperation with industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations — all groups that Eastman was an active and respected participant in — a plan was developed that organized the concept of an optics ecosystem. Anchored by a community college and supported by the regional optics industry cluster, regional school districts, and workforce development organizations, optics ecosystems would be formed, with the support of AmeriCOM, to develop a nationwide Precision Optics Technician training program. IBAS folded AmeriCOM into the National Imperative for Industrial Skills (NIIS) initiative and Eastman’s vision of a national training program formally came to life.
Jay Eastman served on AmeriCOM’s foundational board of directors until his passing. It is an understatement to say he will be missed. Yet, today, under the leadership of Dr. Alexis Vogt, Executive Director of Workforce & Higher Education and Tom Battley, Vice President of Government and Partnerships, AmeriCOM is building the Optics Technician workforce that Jay Eastman knew was needed. Training programs are now in place in Boulder, CO at Front Range Community College; northern New Jersey at Sussex County Community College; and Valencia College in Orlando, FL. Regions in New England, southern California, Texas, and other areas around the country are also being evaluated.
There are many tributes to Jay Eastman online. A scientist, educator, and entrepreneur, he was also active in several nonprofit organizations including the National Women’s Hall of Fame in his native Seneca Falls, NY.
Perhaps, though, the best tribute to a person as generous of his time and talent as Jay is in the words of America’s newest group of Optics Technicians:
“As a person who dropped out of college the first time, I was so nervous going back to school. But because my teachers were so happy and excited about optics, it immediately pulled me in. … The opportunity is endless. I don’t see a ceiling unless I put one there myself.
-Jimmie S., Optics Technician & Teaching Assistant
“I can use my skills in a way I never thought I could and become the powerful woman I’ve always known that I was.”
-Sarah H., Optics Inspector
“We’re now moving into seeing a movement of broad diversity. When we bring people in on tours [of our optics facility] there is going to be at least one other person where it’s going to be like, ‘Hey, that person looks like me! I could do this, too.’”
-JamieRose N., Technician
AmeriCOM’s national strategy of identifying and nurturing optics ecosystems is a multi-faceted process based on a simple premise: Filling the workforce gap where there is a need. By working closely with the team overseeing the Accelerated Skills Training (AST) program at Valencia College, the training program in Precision Optics, Photonics, and Fiber Optics was developed to fill a workforce gap, making central Florida home to the country’s newest optics ecosystem. As a Valencia College administrator explains, students who come could have optics jobs waiting for them once they complete the program.
The 15-week, accelerated skill training, optics certification program begins in September 2023 to meet the growing demand for precision optics and photonics technicians in Central Florida. According to Valencia College’s website, the program “will train students in optics fabrication (making lenses for industrial and military devices, equipment, and systems), optical assembly (assembling lenses and wiring systems), photonics (working with lasers for testing and communication), and fiber optics (assembling cable systems to connect various components).”
“Precision optics manufacturing jobs in our region are going unfilled, and no one was preparing workers to be successful in these jobs,” said Carolyn McMorran, Assistant Vice President, Professional Continuing Education at Valencia College.
Valencia College has a long-standing relationship with Orlando’s advanced manufacturing companies, providing skilled technicians in a variety of industries. But when Lockheed Martin approached the college two years ago requesting an optics training program, school leaders recognized a larger opportunity.
Creating and launching an optics program didn’t happen overnight. First Valencia College met with Lockheed Martin to better understand its needs for precision optics fabrication technicians and optical assembly technicians. Then college administrators established a relationship with the Florida Photonics Cluster to learn industry needs of other optics manufacturers in the area. As Valencia developed the curriculum for its Optics Technician program, administrators met with industry leaders to ensure it included the skill development and training employers sought.
“We can step-in and train students for these fulfilling careers that are vital to our economy,”Carolyn McMorran
“These relationships allowed us to customize our curriculum so it is relevant to employers in our area,” McMorran said. “We want our program graduates to be able to walk into any optics manufacturing company with the skills they need to be successful.”
“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:
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
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.
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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. 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 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. 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 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. 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 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.”