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According to the SPIE/OSA Optics and Photonics Education Directory, there are [as of 2018] over two dozen colleges and universities in the U.S. offering Bachelor of Science degrees in optics and photonics or related fields, but only 10 institutions offer associate degrees. In fact, there is only one institution in New England offering an Associate of Science degree in optics and photonics — Springfield Technical Community College — for a six-state region that is exploding with job opportunities. Even when combined, the 10 programs across the U.S. do not graduate nearly enough associate degree optics and photonics technicians needed to satisfy the growing needs of industry. The lack of skilled optics and photonics technicians in many cases is actually hampering the growth of many companies. As a result, many associate degree students are hired as early as their first semester of college on a part-time and/or internship basis in order to entice them to stay on full time upon graduation. Starting salaries typically range from $40,000 to $60,000 or more, with many graduates receiving multiple job offers. 

“I come from a humble background. I’m the oldest and the first to go to college in my immediate family,” Gagnon said. “Now I’m this guy from South Texas who’s right here on the East Coast, going to MIT. I say that to my family and they can’t believe it. These types of accomplishments were not in the cards for a lot of people I know.” 

Gagnon credits STCC for such an opportunity. “If it wasn’t for the optics and photonics technology program, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” he said. “This program made possible something I thought was unattainable.” 

The MIT internship was established via collaboration between Lincoln Lab, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and AIM Photonics, a Manufacturing USA institute that promotes the manufacturing of photonic integrated circuits (PICs) in the U.S. for academic, commercial, and government applications. Massachusetts is supporting AIM Photonics and several other Manufacturing USA institutes through a $100 million Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2) administered by the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. 

Industry players, from university professors and engineers to company executives, are now working to bridge the gap between the growing photonics and optics job markets and their lagging numbers of skilled technicians. New initiatives and programs, such as the Optics & Photonics Technology INnovation (OPT IN!) program, target a broad range of potential technicians, and at younger ages, in efforts to populate and strengthen the existing and future workforce. 

More programs such as these are needed for next-generation success, according to industry experts. Lionel Kimerling, who leads the Education, Workforce Development and Roadmap division of AIM Photonics — a public-private U.S. manufacturing institute focused on integrated photonics — spoke with Photonics Media about such needs. As the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and founding director of the school’s Microphotonics Center, Kimerling weighs in on the current state of photonics and optics training, the struggling workforce, and what can be done to strengthen it for future success.

AIM Photonics recently held a week-long boot-camp-style academy (the third to date) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which included students from all over the world. MIT professor and executive at AIM Photonics, Lionel Kimerling, told Photonics Media that the AIM Summer Academy brings together students from big and small enterprises, providing practical access and technology on-ramps for U.S. industry, government, and academic communities. 

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The AIM Summer Academy, which runs from July 23 to 27 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is an annual one-week intensive program that introduces students, educators, and industry professionals to the science, technology, and tools necessary to manufacture photonic integrated circuits (PICs) using the methodology of semiconductor chip foundries. 

The April 2018 issue of IEEE Photonics Society News has two features on AIM Photonics.  The first is titled "AIM Photonics is Ready for High-Speed Optical Communications (50Gbps) with the New Silicon Photonics Process Design Kit" and the second is "Photonics Workforce Development Meet & Great at Photonics West 2018."

The drive to continue the scaling of commercial electronic systems at the current pace of a thousand-fold performance improvement every 10 years—with no increase in cost—has created a strong demand for the convergence of electronic and photonic systems. Massive buildouts of data centers, 5G communications (driven by the demands of the Internet of Things) and augmented reality (played out in 3-D and automotive applications) will lead this technology transition in the near term. Active optical cables are one successful example of a retrofit of photonics to electronic technology. Electronic circuits and systems, however, represent a very efficient and reliable incumbent technology that is increasingly difficult to replace by a simple retrofit.

More than 60 people gathered at MIT on Jan. 16 for three days of lectures and design labs on integrated photonics. The program was organized by AIM Photonics Academy, which is part of AIM Photonics Institute, one of 14 Manufacturing USA institutes jointly funded with the federal government to accelerate advanced manufacturing in the United States. Attendees, mostly from industry, came from the U.S. and abroad.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Quinsigamond Community College have received a $4 million grant to start an integrated photonics laboratory together, college and state officials announced Thursday. The award, issued by the state through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative, will cover the purchase of high-tech equipment needed for the colleges’ joint programming in photonics – the emerging field of generating and harnessing light for use in technology.