CORD recommends photonics skills standard

Job demand for photonics technicians is estimated to more than double, from today`s base of 345,000 to 743,000 by the year 2000. And in fact, this growth may be underestimated because military downsizing has recently led to a decline in the number of trained photonics technicians entering the commercial workforce from the armed services.

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr. and Ben Harrison

Job demand for photonics technicians is estimated to more than double, from today`s base of 345,000 to 743,000 by the year 2000. And in fact, this growth may be underestimated because military downsizing has recently led to a decline in the number of trained photonics technicians entering the commercial workforce from the armed services.

To address the growing need for education and training that will accompany this employment trend, the Center for Occupational Research and Development (Waco, TX), or CORD, was commissioned by the U.S. government to develop a skills standard for photonics technicians. CORD will then develop a training curriculum that meets the standard and investigate the need for certification.

Photonics is an emerging technology that draws upon laser technology, electronics and optics to develop applications that generate, transmit and detect light and other forms of energy. The new technology is at the heart of many recent advances in electronics, optics, aerospace, defense, telecommunications and computers.

CORD, which conducted the employment survey as part of an 18-month multidisciplinary study, released its findings in the spring of 1995 in National Photonics Skills Standard for Technicians, a document compiled by Photonics Spectra magazine (Pittsfield, MA). The publication details what photonics workers should know and do to succeed on the job. It also contains curriculum guidance for secondary schools, community colleges and universities that are creating or upgrading photonics programs to meet business needs.

Defining skills

The intent of the standard is to define the knowledge, capabilities and skills that workers in the photonics industry should have. The knowledge and skills described include core academic subjects, such as applied mathematics, physics and chemistry, as well as more-advanced applied subjects, such as electronics, computer science, fiber optics, laser technology and materials processing.

National Photonics Skills Standard for Technicians begins with a definition of the technology and a brief history of its development. Following a discussion of how skills standards are developed, the 36-page booklet looks at how photonics impacts disciplines such as medicine, transportation and communications. A list of needed skills is related to a curriculum of applied courses leading to the Associate`s Degree. Also outlined are academic requirements in standard course areas such as physics and biology. The booklet concludes with an overview of teaching standards.

The standard will serve as a building block in the Clinton administration`s thrust toward an information superhighway. When the standard was released, Skip Johns, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called it "a wonderful beginning. Let`s hope it gets out there and is used by our educational institutions as quickly as possible." Augusta Kappner, U.S. assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, also praised the effort as the type of collaboration between the public and private sectors that the government likes to foster.

Darrell Hull, CORD`s project director for the standard, calls it "a road map from which our schools, colleges and industries can train a workforce for this vital field." He emphasizes that "in developing this standard, business and education leaders from many fields helped determine the skills necessary to function at an entry level in their respective industries." Other industries covered include public safety, environmental protection, energy, test and analysis, and manufacturing.

Establishing a useful format

Following publication of the standard, CORD has continued to seek input. At last fall`s Photonics East conference in Philadelphia, for example, Hull shared the speaker`s platform with Larry Johnson, president of The Light Brigade Inc. (Kent, WA). Johnson`s company, according to Hull, "has helped to develop the fiber optics portion of the standard--to establish a format that will be useful, not only for a school curriculum, but also for monitoring and evaluating skills and growth of personnel involved with or entering the fiber optics industry."

Johnson explained that his company--a national organization focusing on education and training for fiber optics technicians--has acted as a contributor and curriculum designer for CORD. He outlined what has been accomplished since 1994 by The Light Brigade and CORD.

In the spring of 1994, The Light Brigade responded to the CORD inquiry on tasks and equipment used by fiber optics technicians. The company`s staff immediately set to work to establish a worksheet derived from the CORD questionnaire; its purpose was to identify skills needed by technicians. That fall, Light Brigade trainers used skill worksheets to monitor employee skills and development in its many training courses held throughout the country. The following summer, The Light Brigade presented the recently published National Photonics Skills Standard to the educational committee of the Building Industry Consulting Service International Inc. (Tampa, FL), a core organization in the design and installation of premises and campus cabling systems.

"This fall [1995], CORD began course module design," Johnson added, "and future plans call for module content definition."

Johnson is optimistic about the future of the standard. "What they`re [CORD] trying to do is good for the fiber optics industry," he said. "The National Information Infrastructure will create 350,000 new jobs. The teachers training these people should teach the same information, following the same philosophy, and their students should learn the same discipline."

Work remains to be done

However, he thinks that work remains to be done. "Laboratory skills and field skills need to be separated in the standard`s matrix," he said. "Also, multimode and singlemode fiber represent two different disciplines.

Johnson has raised other questions about the CORD effort. One concerns the Fiber Optic Association of Boston, which is currently establishing its own certification program for installers of fiber-optic cable. A second issue is how the CORD skills standard will be incorporated into the recently announced installer registration program being undertaken by BICSI. This program will also involve copper installation, but it seems certain that fiber will be fully covered in the training and testing.

"The Fiber Optic Association and BICSI should get involved," Johnson added, "rather than do it their own ways. All independent and vendor training groups should participate so there can be consensus in the industry."

CORD`s Hull responds that "at this point, we have received little feedback from industry regarding the need for certification. This apathy has indicated to me that the industry is not interested in certification; therefore, we have not pursued it in lieu of considerable work on the curriculum component of the project."

Hull adds, however, that "certification of workers is the one way to ensure that these voluntary standards are adhered to in the industry, so I am intrigued by the interest of BICSI in installer registration. CORD would like to know more about BICSI and its effort to register workers, particularly if this registration is tied to the skills set forth in the photonics standard. The standard is still under development. There is an opportunity for educators and persons from the industry to make recommendations for changes."

The National Photonics Skills Standard Project is one of 22 pilot projects in a skills standards and certification program established jointly by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education under the Goals 2000 legislation.

For more information on the Center for Occupational Research and Development, a non-profit public-service organization founded to help educators address the technical education, training and retraining needs of workers, or on the National Photonics Skills Standard Project, call (800) 972-2766. You can also access and comment on the components of the standard via the Internet at: http://www.spie.org/photonics_ed.html.

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