Industry Market Trends

Laser Technology Skills Gap a Major Problem in U.S.

Dec 10, 2013

The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing has hit a vast array of industries that are having trouble filling their workforce needs with properly trained workers who can step right in and help companies. Yet another suffering area has been the laser and photonics industry.

Across the jobs spectrum in the laser industry, from designing equipment, to finding workers to install and repair laser machinery, to manufacturers that need skilled employees on the plant floor, the lack of workers with the necessary skills has become a major problem.

A recently released report, the "Global Industrial Laser Market," highlighted the serious concerns those in the industry have and how their business -- and that of their customers -- is being affected.

Several executives in the laser industry, speaking to IMT, noted that the problem is vast and that there's no easy answer.

"It's as bad as it's ever been," said Mark Taggart, owner of Laser Mechanisms, a Novi, Mich.-based company that makes laser beam delivery components and articulated arm systems. "I'm 48 years old, and when I started there was a lot of competition and training in the laser business. Now, the generation below me, there's very few people coming through.

"I'm desperate to hire people," Taggart said, "but there aren't enough workers to hire."

The causes of the problem are numerous, executives said. For one, the technology and intricacies of building and designing lasers have advanced faster than the pace at which academic and vocational training can keep up.

"You've still got technology that requires very precise and expert handling," said Dirk Burrowes, owner of VyTek Laser Systems, a manufacturer of laser cutting, marking, and engraving machinery in Fitchburg, Mass. "Ideally, you'd like to get the technology advanced far enough so that you can take a worker who doesn't have a great deal of training to work on it, but we're not there yet."

Another issue is what Taggart alluded to: lack of interest in laser technology among younger generations.

"It's a very demanding profession, and lasers are not 'cool' right now to younger people," Taggart said. "They don't realize that their iPhones and Androids use lasers."

James Stanaway, director of marketing for Golden, Colo.-based Epilog Laser Corp., said he's not seeing that much of a shortage in workers who can run and operate laser machinery, such as Epilog's engravers, but rather there is a big shortfall in laser designers.

"It's a specific skill that's not being taught as much at the university level," Stanaway said.

Burrowes said VyTek's customers are having a difficult time finding laser repair technicians, and it's changed what they expect from his company.

"The biggest source of dissatisfaction from them is their inability to fix it when it breaks down," he said of the laser mechanisms. "Customers now, they want to know exactly what to do if something goes wrong with a laser. They want to know if there's a website or a phone number they can call 24/7, to get things back up and running."

In trying to solve the skills gap, many U.S. companies are looking abroad, to China and Germany specifically, which are thriving in training workers.

China currently has more than 60,000 technicians training on lasers and photonics equipment, and Germany's training program is even more advanced. With a coordinated government-private approach, the Fraunhofer applied research organization is training 16,000 employees worldwide.

Paul Crosby, a senior vice president for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Coherent Inc., which supplies laser sources, tools, and accessories, said the company is often bringing in skilled workers from other countries, who are more prepared to work on lasers than American workers.

"That's fine for large corporations like Coherent, but the smaller laser (businesses) can't afford to do that," Taggart said. "They're getting killed because they need local, cheaper employees here."

So what can be done to help close the skills gap? The executives all agreed that more focused educational programs and vocational training would help, as would dedication from the federal government to offer grants and other incentives to manufacturers for developing training programs.

Currently, the largest organized effort is being made by the National Photonics Institute (NPI). Bringing together experts from industry, academia, and government, the newly formed group hopes to assemble recommendations that will drive a turnaround.

NPI is a formation of the Optical Society (OSA); SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics; the IEEE Photonics Society (IPS); the Laser Institute of America (LIA); and the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Laser Science.

Taggart, who is heavily involved in NPI, said goals include lobbying the academic world to establishing more educational opportunities in lasers and photonics, creating applied research and development labs funded by public-private investment, and incorporating technician training and certificate programs into existing education and retraining programs.

"There's a real need for this, and the 100 or so companies we have involved in NPI are making a dedicated effort to turn around where we've been falling behind," Taggart said. "It's not too late to catch up with the rest of the world on this."


Photo credit: National Cancer Institute