My interest in optics began as a young boy while sorting young chicks into male and female categories. Growing up on a farm with dairy cows, chickens, and a variety of crops, I had already encountered many challenges that required innovative thinking in order to solve problems and complete tasks.
Because our ultimate goal for the chicks was egg production, we needed very few males and most of those were therefore destroyed after birth. So I wished — in vain — for a way to see into an egg to determine the sex of the chicken before investing in the time and effort of incubating the egg for three weeks.
I still enjoy spending time on the family farm during the summer, although now it produces only cash crops such as soybeans or corn.
Unfortunately, there are no IR or high-tech instruments used on our farm to determine water stress levels or anything of that nature.
That inclination toward problem-solving is part of what guided me to a career in optical engineering, which has proven to be extremely rewarding and satisfying on many levels. With my personal experience, it did not surprise me to see job satisfaction rated very highly in the recent Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report from SPIE.
We love our work
Nearly 90% of those who responded from more than 100 countries said they find their work meaningful. Most said they are satisfied with their pay (which can be more than double the median income in a number of regions!), their supervisors, and the positive recognition they receive. In fact, more than two-thirds said they agreed with the statement, “I love my work and I feel fortunate to get paid for doing it.”
There is still plenty of opportunity for young people to join the field. Students graduating from our programs at the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona typically have multiple job offers from which to choose. I have seen and heard similar statistical and anecdotal reports from other optics and photonics programs as well as from the related disciplines of electronic and materials engineering and computer science.
Skilled optics and photonics employees in demand
Fortune magazine, the Society for Human Resource Management, and other sources echo comments from industry leaders in many areas who tell us that employers have jobs to fill but trouble finding qualified new employees.
So for a person with the right training — be it photonics technician certification from a two-year program or a PhD —the chances are very good for a satisfying, well-paying career.
Recognizing just how important the field of optics and photonics is to the economy, regions around the world have drafted strategies to guide policy makers and stimulate their economies. Those governments who have worked together with industry and academia to establish public-private partnerships have seen some excellent payoffs, and photonics-related markets such as lasers and advanced manufacturing have flourished even in the difficult economic times of the last few years.
Taiwan was an early leader in that regard, developing its plan in 1982 and now achieving export revenues in high technology that exceed those of many much larger regions. Germany has also seen great success in implementing its plan and has established leadership in advanced manufacturing, solar energy, and solid-state lighting. Japan, Canada, China, the UK, and the European Union have also achieved results through strategic planning.
Our work is ‘essential’
The United States recently updated its assessment of our industry with the report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” commissioned by the National Academies.
The report is a follow-up to a 1998 report, “Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century,” which, unfortunately, wasn’t used to develop a cohesive plan for our field.
SPIE leaders are joining others from the optics and photonics community in encouraging their colleagues to advocate for this report’s recommendations and raise the profile of our highly versatile enabling technologies.
I encourage you to read the report summary on the SPIE website and the article in SPIE Professional. Share the pervasiveness of optics and photonics with your elected representatives and get even more involved in spreading the word about what optics and photonics can do.
As for seeing into those eggs to determine the sex of the chick: Whoever develops that solution will earn the gratitude of countless backyard egg producers and commercial chicken farmers. And it’s more than likely that the solution will involve optics!
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