Optics lab at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY.

Rochester Physicist Sets Her Sights on Training the Next Generation of Optics Technicians

Among the many established and emerging companies in the Finger LakesOptics, Photonics and Imaging (OPI) corridor, the industry's explosive growth—and future potential—is a rallying cry. But that growth has also exposed a very real challenge: the need for trained technicians ready to fill the existing and new jobs created by the boom.
 
While it seems like a daunting task, Monroe Community College’s (MCC) Optics and Photonics Technology program and its director, Dr. Alexis Vogt, view the growth in OPI as an opportunity that can benefit not only the region but all of New York State and beyond.
 
“I run the only Optical Systems Technology program in the country that is currently training and graduating students in optics fabrication,” says Vogt, who serves as the Rochester-based school's endowed chair and associate professor of Optics. She's become an impassioned advocate for OPI workforce training, and is working hard to help the industry realize its potential.

The Finger Lakes: Focused on Optics, Photonics and Imaging Technology

The future of OPI technology is in focus. See how the Finger Lakes region is helping this technology transform at the speed of light.

Founded in the 1960s, early graduates of the program regularly worked at Kodak, Bausch + Lomb and Xerox and many came directly from the workforce to complete job-funded training. The rise in digital, or filmless, photography in the early 2000s disrupted the industry and impacted local companies, causing drops in enrollment and threatening the the program's continued existence.Dr. Vogt, an optics physicist who received her Ph.D. at the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics, was a rising corporate star when she discovered firsthand the risk that a lack of trained technicians posed to the industry – and was tapped to help turn that trend around.
 
"We had an optics technician that we relied on for so much," Vogt said. "If he had to be out of town or was sick, we literally didn't ship product out the door. As you can imagine, that's not a very good business model. These technicians are vital to the entire industry and we have this very real shortage."
 
In Rochester, the shortage is having a noticeable impact. "In our region, 75 percent of these highly-skilled optics technician positions go unfilled every single year," she adds. "We have over 120 optics companies and we simply don't have enough technicians to support the industry." The fact that many technicians are also approaching retirement is an additional challenge, Vogt says.

Man in a protective research suit working in a photonics lab.

Tasked with handling the many pieces that make up the OPI pipeline, technicians are a critical part of the testing and production process. "These are the people working with their hands, making and measuring optics, optical components, lasers, lenses, fiber optics, etc., that are in so many of the things we use every day," says Vogt. This is one reason students in the program at MCC spend more than half of their time in hands-on training, says Vogt. "It's our obligation to train them properly, so I work very closely with members of our optics advisory board, who represent companies within the region and give us guidance on the type of equipment they're using and the specific skills they need technicians to learn," she says. "We use that feedback to create new courses." For example, newly developed courses delve into the process of making not only single pieces of glass but entire optical systems, such as lenses, created for professional cameras.  

Vogt credits current MCC President Anne Kress with recognizing how important optics and photonics are to the regional economy and fueling the school's rebirth. As Vogt and her colleagues continue to update the program's curriculum to keep it on target with industry demands, she also aims to create a model she can share with other technician degree programs around the country. Vogt recently connected with the director of the soon-to-be operational American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics Test, Assembly and Packaging facility in Rochester and plans to take her students on tours there and establish future internship programs, just as she has done with the other area optics companies.
 
Ensuring diversity and equal opportunity is one of Vogt’s key goals. "We have 72 students currently enrolled and we're growing, and we are using a portion of our grant money to reach out not just to women but ethnically diverse people, military veterans and low-income students."  
 
If an employer is looking for OPI talent, Vogt wants them to think first of MCC. "We've been training optics technicians here at MCC for more than 50 years and we now see it as more important than ever," she says. "And we are growing this awareness right here and in this region, and that's really powerful. We've graduated 684 associates since we started but we'll easily exceed that in the next 50 years. America relies on these technicians and needs this talent, and we're committed to developing it."