MIT is stepping in to train technicians in the advanced manufacturing field of integrated photonics.
Integrated photonics installs light technology on chips. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AIM Photonics is one of 14 institutions across the country that were part of the Obama administration's initiative to develop new technologies and build the little-known industry's workforce.
In a country with high demand for bandwidth, data centers need more and more power to run, and photonics moves information much faster and efficiently than electronics because it generates less heat. Fiber optics are already in everything from cellphone networks to bar codes to sensors, but there aren't nearly enough workers to create the technology.
"There is a demand for photonics jobs, and it is moving quickly," said Professor Anu Agarwal, a research scientist in the photonics lab at MIT.
Three years ago, Gerald Gagnon was working as a social worker while earning an associate's degree from Springfield Technical Community College when his advisers recommended he take a one-year certificate program in photonics on campus.
"I took a couple of math courses and did all right,” Gagnon said. “The next thing I know it, I'm splicing optical fiber and doing these advanced techniques."
Last spring, the 32-year-old father of three applied to MIT's summer photonics internship program. He got in, landing a competitive gig at Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington. It was just before graduation.
"I hadn't really had anything lined up yet, so I thought, 'Well, I'm a little older. I'm a little past my prime. Three kids deep, internship; I can probably wing this,' you know?" he recalled.
The training at MIT that Gagnon and other community college students receive is helping fill a labor gap. Massachusetts alone is facing a shortage of about 50,000 technicians. Agarwal talks to technology companies across the country desperate to find talent.
"Several people said that they go to auto mechanic shops to find people who actually work with their hands and who have a sense for numbers and tools,” Agarwal said. “They go to bike repair shops. Some people go to Dunkin' Donuts and look for people who are very smart and very quick at their jobs and they try to retrain them for jobs as technicians in the lab."
To meet that need, next year MIT is planning to expand its training program to students at four-year schools, including Stonehill College in Easton and Bridgewater State University in southeastern Massachusetts.
MIT expects to charge the four-year students for the training, but how much remains to be determined.
“My students are going out to these companies and they’re immediately useful,” said Ed Deveney, who teaches physics at Bridgewater State and collaborates with local tech companies to shape his courses.
"Most of the people here, they’re bright, they’re motivated, but some of them want jobs in the area where they’re rock-solid jobs, they have great health care, they have great benefits,” Deveney said.
Responding to those desires, more institutions are looking to develop new programs and to innovate, said Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. Gallagher said the Boston area is blessed with an ecosystem of higher ed institutions.
"It's really exceptional worldwide,” he said. “We have more than 80 colleges and universities just in a 25 mile radius, and there's many opportunities due to that for partnership and for institutions to work together and not necessarily compete but collaborate."
Gallagher's research team recently surveyed 750 hiring professionals in a tight job market and found that while college credentials and degrees are still the gold standard, they detected an increase in skills-based hiring.
"Educational credentials have actually increased in value, although employers are looking beyond educational credentials in some cases towards certificates, micro-degrees and other new products that higher ed institutions offer," he said.
Work experience and education, Gallagher said, are still the primary ways employers are making hiring decisions.
"Your track record of success matters much more than educational credentials as you move through your career," he added.
Back in MIT's lab in Cambridge, Gagnon continues his training in integrated photonics as he works full-time as a general technician in Lexington, earning $30 an hour.
"Three years at a community college making what I make, I mean, I could ask for more, but why?” Gagnon said, smiling. “I'm perfectly happy.”
Someday he hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree, perhaps at MIT.
This article has been updated.