New Technology Brings New Career Opportunities

Photonics Program Needed by Michigan Companies, Supported by NSF Grant

If there’s a reliable truth in the technological job market, it is that new technology brings new career opportunities. This is the state of photonics today and in the foreseeable future in Michigan and nationwide, and Baker College is working to help build a talent pool in our state to support expansion of photonics here.

Photonics is the science of using a photon — a unit of light — to generate energy or to detect or transmit information. Fiber-optic cable, now commonly used for cable television and the Internet, is an example of how photonics has become part of our daily lives. Products ranging from cell phones to LASIK eye surgery involve photonics.

Baker College of Flint has responded to the call for trained photonics technicians by launching two programs; the associate degree program begins this fall, and a shorter-term training course is in the works for those already working in the field, those who have been displaced from their jobs or those who want to change careers.

Photonics technicians fix machines, manufacture and assemble products and perform testing. Students in the Baker program will learn to build, test, modify, install, operate, calibrate, maintain and repair laser and electro-optic devices and systems.

Perhaps this maxim, coined by Dan Hull, best describes the role of photonics technicians: “Scientists discover, engineers design and technicians are the geniuses in the laboratory and masters of the equipment.” Hull serves as executive director of the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC), an organization that provides assistance to colleges and universities in creating and implementing successful photonics programs.

Need is critical

OP-TEC’s research paints national demand for trained technicians as critical. The 250-300 technicians who graduate each year from existing US educational programs will meet only about one-third of national need through 2017. This year’s graduates averaged between three and four job offers, each with starting salaries of $40,000-$50,000.

Baker College learned of the shortage of photonics technicians a few years ago when it surveyed more than 50 companies in southeast Michigan that work with photonics and lasers. Companies were not filling positions because they couldn’t find people with the skills or even the vocabulary to understand the processes. One company hired its photonics technicians from competitors or from Germany or Russia. Another hadn’t found qualified photonics interns for two years. The companies had access to individuals with doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degrees, but they needed technicians who could be trained through shorter programs.

This urgent need for technicians was also made clear by the companies that created Mi-Light, the Michigan Photonics Cluster, last year. Mi-Light’s goal is to help grow the state’s talent pool in order to expand the photonics industry and stimulate innovation. As a founding member, Baker College has gained invaluable insight into what is needed to meet industry demand.

NSF grant

Baker College of Flint received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Advanced Technological Education program to help make Baker’s program a model for other colleges interested in photonics nationwide. The NSF award allocates $199,757 over three years to help advance Baker’s photonics program.

In addition to helping create the programs, funds are earmarked to develop high school outreach programs, to recruit students from underrepresented minorities and veterans groups, and to boost Baker’s photonics lab, which was designed similarly to an industrial lab. Baker’s lab will be expanded to accommodate larger classes, and new equipment will be added to the $60,000 of industry-grade equipment already accumulated, thanks, in part, to a donation by IMRA America of Ann Arbor, a global company that develops ultra-fast fiber laser technologies for commercial applications.

Baker College appreciates the Michigan companies that provided letters of support for the NSF grant, the individuals who served in an advisory position to help shape our curriculum and the many member companies in Mi-Light. As Michigan and its workers strive to reinvent and reimagine themselves, photonics stands out as a burgeoning opportunity for both.


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