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Optical Engineers See a Bright Future

Optics is a high-tech field. But it's been around since the days of the ancient astronomers.

Optical engineers, also called photo optical instrumentation engineers or photonic engineers, study light. They apply the study of light to designing, testing and measuring new technologies.

Fiber optics is a huge area right now. Imagine shooting information along glass fibers using photons (particles of light). These fibers can be as thin as a hair and transmit more information than an electronic system can, and at a much faster speed.

Optical engineers have created lasers, compact discs, holograms, fiber optics, car headlights, camera sensors, microscopes, telescopes, cockpit instruments -- and the list goes on.

Most of us come across some result of fiber optics in our everyday lives. It could be telephone calls or the display on your computer screen.

"Optics is doing wonders and doing better than electronics can do," says Michel Duguay. He is a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Lasers are another example of optics that have become widespread.

Lasers are being used in some medical surgeries, in communications and to cut metals. You can find lasers in laser printers, CD players and in scanners at the grocery checkout.

Duguay describes a new and exciting offering in optics: the femtosecond microscope. It uses short laser pulses. It can give you a 3D picture of a live cell without destroying it.

Optical engineers see thousands of jobs open in this field.

The demand for optical engineers is "very, very high, with a capital 'V,'" says Mike Jackson. He is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

He says the explosion of Internet data traffic over fiber is responsible for the high demand. There aren't enough trained people to keep up with the demand.

Duguay agrees. He sees a huge amount of jobs in the field. He sees large companies working closely with universities to recruit people, and still not finding enough professionals to fill the jobs.

The early 1980s saw a boom, then a recession. But new commercial projects are causing huge growth. And the growth is expected to continue.

"The photonics and fiber optics industry is still fairly early in its technological development," observes Jackson.

"There's a lot of room for a lot more development -- a lot more integration and complexity. And one of the things you are going to see over the next five years is going to be large-scale deployment of fiber optics in metropolitan areas."

While companies are growing, fewer students are taking the necessary courses. Fewer students are earning degrees in science, physics and engineering compared to past years.

Photonics Spectra suspects this shortage of people could affect employment for many years, with scarce but qualified optics experts having almost "recession-proof" jobs.

"My opinion is that we are on the front end of a technology revolution where optics and photonics will be replacing electronics," says Marshall Weathersby. He is associate executive director of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE).

"This revolution started with the fiber optic communications area, but new technologies and applications areas are already on the horizon."

He adds that the field of optics is expanding so rapidly, "virtually every company is seeking qualified applicants."

Optics areas that are facing strong growth are fiber optics and communications, medical optics and lighting.

Most of the experts advise aiming at degrees in electrical and computer engineering, engineering physics or physics. Depending on what you want to do in the field, training programs range from technician training in community colleges and vocational schools through to doctoral programs at universities.

Universities across the U.S. and Canada offer undergraduate programs in engineering, physics and optics. A few examples are the University of Arizona, University of Rochester, Oregon Institute of Technology, Laval University, Dalhousie University and the University of British Columbia.

At the graduate level, you can find programs all over North America, including the University of Alabama in Huntsville, University of New Mexico, Stanford University, and Boston University. Check out the SPIE website for a detailed list of all schools and their programs.

New programs have been appearing at the university undergraduate and graduate levels, says John Koshel. He is technical director of illumination systems for the Breault Research Organization in Tucson, Arizona. Optics programs will continue to grow after new graduate programs blossom, predicts Koshel.

Technicians are the builders of the components and systems that engineers design. Some companies have created technical programs at community colleges. These programs are growing across North America. Again, check SPIE for more information.

Anyone interested in a career in photonics should check websites like SPIE, the Optical Society of America and others that list job postings. Henri Arsenault is a professor of physics at Laval University and a past SPIE president. He recommends reading SPIE and OSA newspapers and magazines.

He sees demand in this area focusing on people with a knowledge of both electronics and optics. Similarly, Jackson emphasizes the importance of electronics knowledge. He recommends tinkering with electronics and taking hands-on electronics courses.

Weathersby advises students to "look for opportunities to co-op with industry."

Groot Gregory is vice-president of Lambda Research in Massachusetts. He tells students to check the employment lists in the trade magazines and go to local optics trade shows.


Photonics Spectra Online
Read articles on optics and current industry news

Optical Society of America (OSA)
Lists of publications, meetings, news and jobs

Photonics Related Links
Find optical engineering links, schools, organizations and research groups

International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE)
Learn more about SPIE membership, meetings, industry news, jobs and resources on the optics industry

Optics Education 2000 (SPIE)
This page gives an international list of schools

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