Filling the Work Force Gap in Lasers and FiberOptics: LASER-TEC Center at Indian River State College

Nov 5, 2019

Professor Paul Godfrey, Natalia Chekhovskaya Kearney and Evin Robertson in the photonics lab at LASER-TEC at IRSC.
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan

We rely on technology to do just about everything. So much in fact, that you might think jobs in fiber optics, IT, electrical engineering and such would all be taken and hard to come by.

Turns out, not so!

NCK: The state of the work force – the technical work force – in emerging technical fields is pretty dire nationwide. And of course, lasers and fiber optics is one of those emerging techs where we feel a huge shortage – a huge need – of qualified personnel.

We’re at the LASER-TEC Center at Indian River State College, just a short walk from our WQCS studios.

NCK: My name is Natalia Chekhovskaya Kearney. I am associate director of the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Center that focuses on development of the work force in lasers and FiberOptics. So the Center is called LASER-TEC.

She says, according to the Department of Labor…

NCK: We need about 1700 technicians in this field annually.

But, currently, there are only about 400 to 500 entering the work force each year. 

The reason why there is such a major shortage?

NCK: It did go from science fiction to real life pretty quickly. Engineers did a great job to make it available for us, regular consumers. But now we are not sure who’s going to maintain it.

LASER-TEC has 6 different labs that offer hands-on practical experience.

The photonics lab at LASER-TEC at IRSC
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan

We start out in the Photonics Lab. It’s a dramatic black room with mirrors and lasers. A life size cut out of Darth Vader greets us at the door.

Photonics is the study of light, and out of that comes the Laser, which is used in communications, manufacturing, healthcare, industrial applications.

NCK: Today we are cutting with it, we are engraving with it, we are welding with it. We are doing the military applications

We diagnose and treat people with it. We explore space with it. And in the Photonics lab, lasers are all around us! Professor Paul Godfrey, who specializes in electronics and robotics, uses a spray called Professional Haze to reveal a thin red beam of light.

PG: Well, you can’t see the laser beam in the air – you can put your hand here and see that it’s there – (sound of spray) so this just simply provides an artificial cloud so to speak so then you can see it.

Laser Tec student Evin Robertson joins us in the photonics lab.

ER: I am currently a student at IRSC in the electronics engineering technology program. I do have a passion for photonics and biomedical engineering. One of the things that really catches my attention is Total Internal Reflection – that’s how we use fiber optics and we are able to send information so quickly.

Professor Paul Godfrey and Natalia Chekhovskaya Kearney in the robotics lab
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan

Next, we move to Professor Godfrey’s robotics lab.

PG: So, this was built by students. (sound)

TOC: Robotics in action! (more sound).

Now, we take a trip over to the Fiber Optics lab.

NCK: A company called PSC Fiber - local contractor here in fiber – they helped us design our fiber optics lab. They did the layout. They contributed with the equipment.

So, when graduates are out in the field actually using all of this technology…

NCK: They know how to work with it.

Part of the program includes working with middle and high school students through an ongoing, year-round series of 8-week long bootcamps…

NCK: …where students have an opportunity just to try out if it’s their calling or not.

Local schools often visit on field trips, and LASER-TEC offers them remote Skype sessions which rely on the same technologies they teach.

PG: A little camera. That’s right.

NCK: And a screen. Or the projector. You know all of that is going to be enabled by photonics! Or telecommunications. Bringing that signal is going to go through fiber optics, most likely.

Learn more at http://www.laser-tec.org/

Examples of FiberOptics
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan