Demand for workers in this industry is so insatiable that recent graduates with an associate degree often earn $100K per year. Even a one-year certificate can lead to a $60K job and, after a couple years of on-the-job training, a six-figure wage.
The job itself is hands-on and a mixture of art and science. It’s a good fit for chefs, musicians, jewelers and people who might not want office roles.
But first, both prospective students and college administrators would need to have heard about the optics manufacturing industry and to have at least a cursory understanding of what the career track is like for optics technicians. Few do, even in Rochester, New York, the nation’s hotbed for optics.
The industry’s growth “is terribly exciting,” says Alexis Vogt
, a professor of optics at Rochester’s Monroe Community College. “It’s also very daunting.“
While labor shortages in tech and healthcare get most of the attention in workforce development, many smaller fields are struggling to train and attract new hires. Companies and governments increasingly are stepping in to pay for workers’ credentials in these industries, while also helping college programs get off the ground.
Optics technicians create lenses and other components used in a growing array
of devices, including those used in aerospace, life science and medical treatment, night-vision technology, self-driving cars, satellites and space telescopes, streaming services, and the computer chip industry.
Companies big and small are struggling to hire enough technicians. For example, Amazon is ramping up its precision optics manufacturing lines as it develops a satellite-based broadband service
. And colleges are not meeting the demand.
“I’m scrambling right now,” says Vogt, who holds a Ph.D. in optical engineering and worked in the industry before coming to Monroe six years ago.
When Vogt arrived at Monroe, the program enrolled five students. This past academic year it enrolled 101, and all 43 graduates had job offers
before they completed.
But even the increased production is a drop in the bucket—the region has about 550 open optics positions each year. Optimax Systems alone could hire 20 technicians in Greater Rochester each month. And Vogt says demand is unmet in many optics clusters around the country.
“This isn’t a Rochester problem. This is a world problem,” she says.
Optimax and other companies are stepping in to help with money, offering their employees as adjuncts, and even marketing support.
Despite the almost guaranteed payoff for students, community colleges can be slow to add optics programs, if they’re even aware of the industry. And paying enough to hire instructors in optics and many other in-demand industries is a big challenge for the two-year sector, one made trickier as colleges struggle with worsening enrollment-driven budget woes.
“We still can’t hire people at will because enrollment at the college has declined,” says Vogt.
Monroe’s program largely has relied on external grants to expand. For example, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research contributed $4.4M
for faculty development, apprenticeships, and to enlist 30 corporate sponsors.
“The anchors of a precision optics ecosystem are a community college, the regional optics industry cluster, and nonprofit organizations that focus on workforce development, vocational programs (at the high school level and others), veterans outreach, plus local, state, and federal government representatives,” says Josanne DeNatale
, AmeriCOM’s national marketing manager.
The biggest barrier by far for the industry is its low visibility as a career path, DeNatale says, a problem that’s compounded by widely held misperceptions about manufacturing jobs
. The campaign seeks to help high school students learn what’s possible in the industry and to recruit them for optics programs at community colleges, including short-term ones.
Front Range Community College in Colorado has an optics program and is a campaign partner. So are New Jersey’s Sussex County Community College and Valencia College in Orlando. Valencia offers fast-track certificates in optics that can be completed in 20 weeks.
Monroe soon will add its own fast-track program. Vogt says an accelerated three-course certificate can be enough for students to get a good entry-level job with a path forward.
The Kicker: “We’re not graduating students fast enough,” Vogt says. “We so desperately need these technicians.”