TRAVERSE CITY— Jobs are available for photonics technicians, but few people have heard of photonics, much less that it’s considered a career track.
That’s why Northwestern Michigan College adjunct instructor Brian Sweeney applied for a small grant last fall to help boost low student enrollments in the two, introductory photonics courses he began teaching this year.
Sweeney said he learned this week that NMC will receive a $15,000 grant to pay a part-time recruiter $7,000 to visit area schools and explain that photonics technician jobs are bountiful and lucrative. The remainder will fund 11 scholarships aimed at area high school students who want to take NMC’s photonics classes starting in the fall of 2014, he said.
Photonics technology is used in lasers, such as those used in eye surgery, and other electro-optical devices in fields ranging from medicine to defense. The word is derived from “photon,” a packet of light, said Sweeney, who formerly taught physics at the military academy at West Point.
“People use lasers all the time, but lasers are easy. You push a button on the side of the pointer and it works,” Sweeney said. “But people don’t know why it works; what’s going on inside the pointer and the fact there was an engineer who had to design that.”
The grant was awarded by the National Center for Optics and Phototonics Education, or OP-TEC, an educational consortium that works to ensure colleges have a “pipeline” of high school graduates interested and academically prepared to study photonics.
A recent OP-TEC survey shows that U.S. employers require 800 new photonics technicians each year, but two-year colleges produce fewer than 300 graduates annually.
A high school student can dual enroll in courses at NMC, meaning they earn high school and college credit at the same time.
“This is nice because they get into a college class,” Sweeney said. “If they don’t like it, they won’t have lost a whole lot of money. If they do like it, it’s a free start and a head start toward studying photonics.”
Those who decide on a photonics career could earn an associate’s degree in engineering technology at NMC, but would have to pursue further education elsewhere since NMC’s photonics class offerings are limited, Sweeney said.
The scholarships will be available for class starting in the fall of 2014.