Photonics Won’t Work Without a Workforce

August 8th, 2023

The photonics industry has weathered one storm after another during the past three years: a global pandemic, supply chain disruptions, a micro-electronics shortage, armed conflict, and increasingly stringent export controls. Yet, compared to many other industrial sectors, ours not only showed remarkable resilience against these headwinds, but it also recovered more quickly.

Still, one major dilemma continues to dog employers: the difficulty of training and maintaining a qualified photonics workforce.

A 2021 workforce study issued by AIM Photonics projected that the U.S. photonics industry would need to fill around 42,000 middle-skilled workers — such as engineering technicians — through the end of the decade.

The growing pains are as acute for European photonics companies. In a presentation at LASER World of PHOTONICS in June, Jörg Mayer, CEO of SPECTARIS, noted that German photonics firms will need to recruit 60,000 new employees by 2027 to sustain its current growth projections.

Were this a problem that could be solved by simply posting more job ads, it would have been solved long ago. Underlying the current trickle in the pipeline for photonics engineers is the much deeper issue of education, ranging from a lack of interest in STEM courses, photonics technician certificate programs, and specialized higher education degrees.

In this article, the author will discuss some of the successful recruitment and training tactics employed by optics employers in other regions and other U.S. photonics clusters. Close collaborations between industry and academia underpinned many of the successes that the author reports. But another vital factor is government support.

Most individuals in the field, or even tangentially associated with the field, acknowledge the importance of government funding for scientific research — the benefits of which eventually ripple through the commercial sector in the form of new technologies. But government funding can also have a more direct effect on workforce recruitment efforts that, in turn, can help to fuel the competitiveness and growth of both local and national industrial sectors.

Governing bodies in the U.S. and the European Union seem to increasingly recognize that industrial policy (i.e., funding) must help foster a workforce if it will successfully foster competitiveness and economic growth. Of the $52.7 billion that the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act apportioned to rebuild the nation’s domestic semiconductor infrastructure, $13.2 billion was set aside specifically to promote semiconductor R&D and workforce development. The draft version of a similar European Union bill aims to add €15 billion ($16.9 billion) to an existing €30 billion ($33.7 billion) in public investments to create new STEM-focused programs, attract new talent to Europe, and build new infrastructure.

Like government funding in research, shrewd investments in technical recruitment and training can provide outsized returns for local and national economies. The support given to industry sectors like semiconductor manufacturing prove this. Given the continued expansion that is projected for the photonics industry — both in its existing and newly emerging technical sectors — underwriting the development of a qualified workforce is both strategically vital and a sure bet on future growth.
DanMcCarthy Sig

Contributing editor James Schlett