With millions in federal and state funding, Rochester is poised to become a photonics research and manufacturing hub.
And with thousands of new jobs possible, local colleges are preparing their students now to build their careers in the industry.
At Monroe Community College, many more students are enrolling in the optics program.
“Last year, 15 students were in my class and I’m looking right now at 44 students,” said Dr. Alexis Vogt, associate professor of optics.
Vogt’s classes gear students toward a certificate or associate’s degree in optics. The program has been around since 1963, a time when companies like Kodak and Xerox put Rochester’s imaging capabilities in the global spotlight.
Now, photonics has brought new excitement to the field. Photonics is a subset of optics; specifically, it represents the science and application of light. The technology can make devices like computers, cellphones and medical instruments faster and more energy-efficient.
“We had always called it electro-optics, so they’re synonyms. But now we’re changing our name to reflect that more popular word ‘photonics’ that we hear,” said Vogt.
Career change to photonics
MCC is one of only a few colleges across the nation to offer the Optics Systems Technology program. It teaches students how to grind and polish glass and turn it into a lens. Students come from diverse backgrounds; some enroll after high school, some work at optics companies and require additional training, and there are others who have switched careers entirely.
For John Chirinko, retirement after a career in the finance industry was short-lived.
“I then said, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ Literally, I retired for four days. I decided this is not working for me,” said Chirinko.
After spending more than 20 years crunching numbers as an accountant at Bausch + Lomb, Chirinko is now counting the number of credits he will earn when he graduates with an electro-optics degree from MCC in May 2017. He expects to be working full-time in the field by July.
“I take seven optics courses, six electronics courses, a couple math courses, four liberal arts. So it really adds up to a lot of credit hours,” he said.
The 66-year-old said he considers the move a return to his roots, since he studied science as an undergrad. But he admitted the transition has not always been smooth.
“I’ve never soldered before. I’ve never hooked up transistors on a breadboard with little teeny wires. I had to go out and buy a magnifying glass.”
Optics at work
Hands-on training is the key to success in optics. The average starting salary in the field is $35,000 per year. The more future optical technicians know before entering the workforce, the better their chances are of getting hired.
Sydor Optics, near Greater Rochester International Airport, has openings currently available.
“We just don’t have qualified people to fill those openings,” said Jim Sydor, the company’s president.
With roughly 250 customers, Sydor Optics employs nearly 100 workers to make windows, mirrors, wedges and prisms for various industries including movie theaters and the military.
Sydor looks to colleges to find summer interns and future staff. He also has hired engineers and opticians who first learned about the trade early on, through a dual enrollment program that allows local high school students to take classes that also count as college credits.
Wheatland-Chili, Northstar Christian Academy and Greece Olympia currently offer the specialized joint program, and more high schools are lined up to teach the new Intro to Optics class next year.
Sydor said he keeps in close contact with MCC with an eye toward hiring some of these well-rounded technicians.
“They’re used to handling optical components. They know what the optics is doing, as opposed to somebody coming off the street that has never handled a piece of glass before or measured a piece of glass,” said Sydor, “This is highly technical. We are dealing with tolerances of millionths of an inch.”
It’s that structure and attention to detail that Chirinko enjoys — and the reason he decided against retirement.
“With all the opportunities that are going to be coming to fruit over the next couple years, I think this is a really good field to be in,” said Chirinko.