Building the Photonics Army

It’s a tune that is becoming just a little too familiar in the photonics arena: As the industry grows, so too does the need for capable engineers and technicians. Unfortunately, the demand for these qualified employees—particularly recent college graduates—outweighs the current supply. Universities are feeling the squeeze as much as companies looking to hire, and some, like the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT; Klamath Falls, OR), are hoping to come up with alternatives to start bulking up the future of the optics industry.

In order to meet the industry’s employment needs, the Laser Optical Engineering Technology (LOET) program at OIT is planning a move to Portland in 2002. By moving to a larger market, Richard Oram, program director and assistant professor with LOET, hopes to double the size of the current 40-person program. «Even though the career path for our graduates is well defined and very bright, OIT, like other universities throughout the United States, is having a difficult time recruiting quality high-school students with an interest in the optics field,» he says. «Moving to a metropolitan center with a larger population base will increase the profile of the high-quality optics education that we offer.»

Oram also hopes that with the move, the program will be able to extend courses to a more varied group of students, including those already employed part time or full time, or those who want to retrain or update their skills. A number of photonics firms are located in the Portland area, including Flir Systems Inc., Electro Scientific Industries, Blue Road Research, and GN Nettest.

LOET aims to equip graduates with both theoretical and pragmatic information required by optics employers, according to Oram. By graduation, students have completed more than 600 hours of work in various optics laboratories, with topics including geometric and physical optics, photonic devices, image processing, optical detection, laser principles, holography, and optical thin films. Besides the hands-on lab experience, optics students at OIT complete up to three internships in the field. «This applied emphasis seems to pay off, as the feedback we receive from the industry is that our graduates are useful from day one,» Oram says.

The feedback is so positive, in fact, that employers are eager to hire graduates as soon as possible. «Our graduates are being snapped up three to four months before graduation,» Oram says.

Optics companies have to be quick to hire because of the small pool of candidates in the field. Oram estimates that only 250 graduates in the United States receive optics-related degrees each year. «For companies looking to hire new people, it’s a frighteningly small number,» he says.

In order to increase enrolment, however, the program needs the proper funding, which currently comes from student tuition fees and the state of Oregon. «Right now we’re running at half-capacity, which means we have only half the funds to work with,» Oram says. «Our budget is limited. With our grads being more and more sought after, we’re having to do more and more with fewer resources.»

Although optics companies donate equipment such as lasers and optical components, no money actually comes from these companies. And with only three professors for 40 students, raising money via research has been difficult. «Because we are so focused upon teaching, the faculty doesn’t have time to get involved in much research work— usually just over the summer break,» Oram says. «So we don’t have any mechanisms in place to raise extra money that we need to grow.»

Recruitment, therefore, becomes the key in obtaining more students and increasing the program’s funding. However, recruitment also presents its own set of challenges. Like other universities across the United States, OIT is having difficulty attracting high-school students with an interest in optics and a solid science and math background, says Oram. One of the most successful approaches still proves to be education outreach, and the program at OIT is using its own students as its strongest tool. «We continue to send our current LOET students back to their own high schools on education outreach activities,» he says.

By working from the inside out, current students might just be the key to bringing new recruits to an already vital program.

(By Holly Andren,  OE magazine, May, 2001)

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