Connecticut photonics firms lack pool of trained talent

Take a small state with 110,000 people on the unemployment rolls. Now pose a threat to one of its most up-and-coming industries, and not surprisingly, you have cause for alarm.

That is the situation in Connecticut's photonics industry.

You may not recognize the term, but you aren't alone. It is so new that some of the 8,000 people employed in the industry in Connecticut don't even know what it means. But they know that, if a reliable source of new talent doesn't soon materialize, their employers - who contribute $800 million a year to the state economy - may lose their competitive edge in the field.

Photonics comprises the technologies for generating and harnessing light for use in such fields as lasers, fiber optics, electro-optics, computer-assisted graphics, holography, and measuring instrumentation. Thanks to companies like United Technologies and Perkin-Elmer, Connecticut ranks with California, Massachusetts, and New York as a leader in the field.

But that could change. Bob Clark, executive editor of Photonics Spectra magazine, a monthly trade journal, says growth in certain sectors of the industry is explosive. This is especially true in fiber optics, the technology in which pulses of light are sent along superpure strands of glass to transmit images and messages.

The problem is that Connecticut photonics companies must compete with those in California's Silicon Valley and along Route 128 outside Boston, which have the support of local universities like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively, to crank out new talent. Both schools have internationally recognized programs in physics, the basic discipline of photonics.

And while the high-technology industry in the state of New York is less well known than those in California and Massachusetts, it does have one advantage the Connecticut companies don't. The University of Rochester has one of only two degree-granting programs in optics among major US colleges. (The other is at the University of Arizona.)

There are no such sources of supply in Connecticut, and industry experts readily concede that fiber-optics technicians just don't walk in off the street. To date, the state's lone academic program in fiber optics is conducted by Perkin-Elmer, a private firm, in conjunction with the University of Connecticut. The classes aren't even taught on campus, but in high school facilities near the southern end of the state. In the six years since the graduate-level program was created, 400 students have enrolled.

Connecticut also has a five-school network of state technical colleges, with campuses widely scattered. The combined enrollment in the two-year, associate-degree program is 9,000, according George Harris, deputy executive director. The program helps supply technically trained manpower, but it does not offer advanced training.Only 60 percent of the students attend full time; hundreds of others have had to be turned away for lack of space.

Mr. Clark speculates that a school wanting to establish a full-fledged program in optics ''with decent instruction'' would need 10 years to build it. However, he says, a recent poll of Photonics Spectra readers found widespread agreement that there are too few qualified instructors in academia to train the employees of tomorrow.

To help focus public attention on the problem, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) held a Jan. 20 conference in Hartford, where speakers emphasized the importance of photonics to the state's large aerospace industry.

''What we're attempting to do is make sure the connection between industry and academia is close enough that these kinds of programs can develop,'' CBIA vice-president Anne Wingate says. It is hoped that state legislators particularly will be attracted to the cause, and eventually initiate new action to help plug the talent gap, she adds.

But at least one legislator, Rep. Dorothy Goodwin (D), chairman of the Joint Education Committee, says she thinks ''CBIA itself stands in the way of this by not supporting a state income tax'' that could be used to finance additional technical education.

At the moment the lawmaker maintains that such education remains ''an appropriations matter'' and that other ''initiatives from within the industry will come.''

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