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SPIE Professional January 2012

SPIE President's Letter: Global photonics industry and local skills

Unfilled positions in some regions, but employee surplus elsewhere

By Eustace Dereniak

image of SPIE PRESIDENT Eustace Dereniak

SPIE has been an important part of my professional life since the beginning of my career in the 1970s, when my connection was as a proceedings author on the path to an assistant professorship. Since then, I've become an SPIE short-course instructor, a conference program committee member, and a symposium chair, and I've served on leadership committees and the Board of Directors.

I am deeply honored to serve this year as President of the Society and look forward to connecting with even more new colleagues through SPIE.

As an educator, I have always appreciated our Society's support for education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This takes the form of financial support through scholarships, grants, and outreach programs as well as the continuing education programs offered at SPIE events.

It also involves leadership in advocating for government programs that fund STEM education and the Society's central role in connecting those who are educating the workforce of the future with employers in industry, government, and academia.

Skills mismatch in optics

Through those connections, we are seeing and hearing firsthand of the challenge of a skills mismatch in the photonics industry: While skilled workers are underemployed or unable to find positions in some areas, jobs are going unfilled elsewhere because the skills possessed by the local workforce do not match what positions require.

In Germany, for example, companies report that they find an abundance of PhDs well versed in topics such as optical cooling or quantum optics, but that there is an insufficient pool of engineers with competencies such as optical design or laser engineering.

While aging populations in countries such as Japan, Germany, France, the UK, and the USA play a factor, the numbers for the future are also decreased through a high drop-out rate among STEM programs, particularly at the graduate level -- as high as 50% in some countries.

Some students drop out because they don't have the required math skills, and some reject the field because they don't see how photonics will enable them to make a difference for society.

Many excellent photonics and optical engineering programs say they have trouble recruiting new students for the same reasons. Photonics programs at colleges such as Niagara and Algonquin in Canada and Three Rivers in the United States all report having trouble finding students, even though their graduates uniformly find good, high-paying jobs soon after graduation.

Programs address challenge

It's inspiring to see visionary new projects that address the skills mismatch on several fronts.

The Science Education Initiative launched by Carl Wieman, a Nobel Laureate associated with both the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, Boulder, stresses continuous evaluation and hands-on problem solving. (See related article.) Wieman is also working on STEM education as a staff member at the U.S. Office on Science and Technology Policy.

The U.S. National Research Council's recent report on STEM education for K-12 identifies strategies such as developing coherent standards and an assessment system for science that supports learning and understanding, as has been developed for reading, and devoting more time to science instruction.

Engineers working in industry are finding ways to collaborate with academia, to help define what the workforce of the future will need. One connection is the "More Engineers for Europe" program organized last spring to help inform and support the European Commission's Europe 2020 growth strategy through defining the qualifications for engineering jobs and recommendations for educating engineers.

SPIE is deeply committed to addressing these issues, and to continue bringing all sides together to invent new strategies for educating the next generation.

Optics and photonics R&D yields well-paying jobs and products that provide quality-of-life improvements such as clean energy sources, cures for cancer, improved storm and climate tracking, faster and more robust computers and internet systems, and better security at home and abroad. A technology worker shortage stifles industry's ability to advance, lowers productivity, and inhibits job growth and economic recovery.

Addressing the need for a skilled workforce for the future is a great challenge, and one we must meet. I look forward to working with you on this and other important issues during my year as President of SPIE.

Eustace Dereniak
2012 SPIE President


Profile: 2012 SPIE President Eustace Dereniak


SPIE Fellow and 2012 SPIE President Eustace Dereniak is a professor of optical sciences and electrical and computer engineering at the College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona (UA) where he received the Award of Distinction for Undergraduate Teaching in 2006.

He received his MS in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his PhD in optical sciences from UA.

He has served on the SPIE Awards and Strategic Planning Committees and chaired SPIE conferences on infrared detectors and focal plane arrays, infrared photoelectronics, semiconductor photodetectors, imaging spectrometers, and infrared technology.

His technical interests include IR detectors and 2D arrays, photodetector arrays, imaging polarimeters, and germanium and silicon detectors.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201201.01

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