Shawn Reese is the perfect example of the complicated route that can lie ahead for workers of the future — but also for the opportunities that are emerging.
He graduated from Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in May with a degree in electronics engineering, a field that — like most — is undergoing rapid change. A degree today is unlikely to be enough preparation for the challenges of tomorrow. So what is a student, a university, an industry, to do?
One approach is the one taken by AIM Photonics — its AIM Photonics Academy — and a group of community colleges and universities that have banded together over the last five years to develop emerging technologies and train the work forces needed to sustain them. (AIM stands for the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics; we’ll get to the photonics part in a moment.)
The partnership is one of 14 across the country focusing on emerging technologies and industries addressing an increasingly important and frequently vexing question: how to prepare workers at all levels — technicians as well as people with doctoral degrees — for new technologies, like integrated photonics, that are in development, but only at the very early stages of commercial use.
“Because the jobs don’t exist yet, we need to train students in the skills that are relevant today so they can get a job, but at the same time, very selectively, begin to supplement the training relevant to new industries,” said Sajan Saini, the education director of the AIM Photonics Academy, which is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
In his view, the way to accomplish this is by creating “a staggered educational curriculum so that the learning never stops.”
And that brings us to photonics: It’s the science of using particles of light, or photons, as an energy source (as opposed to electrons) and derives from work by Albert Einstein and others that began more than a century ago. It figures in a wide range of modern devices, from CT scans to bar codes, to laser-guided missiles, cellphone networks and more. Light-based technologies are energy efficient, reliable and fast.
Integrated photonics is still a developing technology that enables components to work seamlessly together. It is expected to be incorporated in telecommunications and computing, to name just two applications, and could, by 2025, comprise a market exceeding $5 billion, said Lionel Kimerling, the AIM Photonics Academy executive.