Addressing the Skilled Labor Shortage in Optics
MCC & AmeriCOM Team Up to Train Future Optics Technicians
The use of optics is essential to countless industries and applications — from virtual and augmented reality platforms and gaming devices to infrared systems, back-up cameras, and military surveillance. However, there are far more job openings for optics technicians than qualified candidates. This shortage is a global problem that, if not addressed, will significantly impact growth, innovation, and technical advancement.
Alexis Spilman Vogt, PhD is a tireless champion for the optics industry. As the Endowed Chair and Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College (MCC), she has spent her tenure securing grants and garnering attention for the school’s nation-leading optical technician program — efforts that have led to a significant increase in program graduates and dual enrollment programs in regional high schools. Now, Dr. Vogt is expanding her efforts nationally in her role as the Workforce and Higher Education Executive Director for the American Center for Optics Manufacturing (AmeriCOM).
An initiative of the Department of Defense (DoD)’s National Imperative for Industrial Skills, AmeriCOM has a two-fold mission: expand the capacity of the nation’s precision optics manufacturing base, and increase the pipeline of skilled optics technicians entering the workforce. To these ends, Dr. Vogt and Josanne DeNatale, AmeriCOM National Marketing Manager, have joined forces to increase access to optics technician training programs across the country and heighten awareness of the optics industry as a whole.
Luminate recently spoke with Dr. Vogt and DeNatale to hear their thoughts on the future of this important collaboration.
How are people in government, academia, and industry working to address the shortages that exist for the good of all parties?
DeNatale: AmeriCOM is funded by a Department of Defense grant and has two main objectives: Conducting research in the area of precision optics manufacturing and innovating new process, equipment, and materials; and growing the optics technician workforce that makes these innovations possible. Developing cutting-edge optics design and manufacturing technologies along with highly trained technicians and engineers is critical, not just to enhance the capabilities of warfighters but to power industries that affect our daily lives. By building the precision optics industrial base and strengthening the resiliency of its supply chains, AmeriCOM is addressing these needs head-on.
Dr. Vogt: In the Finger Lakes Region alone, more than 550 students are needed annually to fill optics technician positions. One of our main focus areas is replicating the successful MCC optics program throughout the country in other community colleges, including ones in New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, and other regions in the U.S. where there are clusters of optics manufacturing companies. Building these programs around the country is critical to support the OPI (optics, photonics, and imaging) industry with a skilled workforce.
We’re working to create ecosystems with community colleges at the hub, pulling faculty and support from optics companies that have the knowledge — plus the desire and the commitment — to grow the field. Raising funds to endow the optics programs to recruit and retain faculty is vitally important to the quality of instruction, too. Marketing and awareness-building are critical in this effort.
DeNatale: The collaboration that AmeriCOM is fostering with optics companies, governmental agencies, educational institutions including middle schools, high schools, and colleges, and community-based non-profits will help establish these optics ecosystems. Every member of the ecosystem has a role to play in helping spread the word about optics.
Are there any attributes you see in students that correlate with future success in the optics industry?
Dr. Vogt: Most people feel that to have a successful career in optics, a strong aptitude in mathematics and science is essential. While comfort in those areas is important, other traits that contribute to success include being artistic, loving to “tinker,” having an interest in gaming, and possessing musical talents. The current MCC optics class includes students with all of these interests who are turning their passions into proficiencies and skills that help them look at optics in different ways. Kinesthetic learners (those who learn by doing) have been particularly successful as optics technicians. Ultimately, because of the high number of job openings and the variety of educational programs in the optics industry, the field is well-suited to a wide range of students.
What types of educational programs and models for delivery are being explored?
DeNatale: Programs range from dual enrollment studies in high school, to one-year optical technician certificates, to associates degrees, to 2 + 2 programs (two years in a community college followed by two years in a bachelor’s program). Micro-credentialing is another program currently being explored where specific classes are offered in areas dependent upon needs identified by the industry. These accelerated programs can be completed in a 22-week timeframe, offering stackable credentials that are specific to skills needed by optics companies. Internships and apprenticeships are offered which promote learning and on-the-job training, providing a taste of what to expect in the real work world.
Dr. Vogt: The pandemic contributed positively to MCC’s program expansion, since virtual classes were able to reach remote learners throughout the nation. This distance learning model was being built pre-pandemic and then MCC, like every other college and business in the world, was forced to accelerate the virtual model, and it worked very well. The DoD grant helps pay for remote learning programs to continue and expand these opportunities.
Different needs of students in the MCC model are studied closely to ensure we’re addressing barriers to success. In addition to financial support, some students might need assistance with transportation, flexible scheduling and online learning, childcare, and access to food pantries and other services. One of the biggest goals of the program is to promote diversity in the form of attracting veterans, single parents, older workers, and underrepresented communities to give them a hand-up rather than a hand-out. The optics industry is perfect for people of all different backgrounds.