Rep. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) hosted a roundtable to discuss ongoing cooperation to close the middle-skill jobs gap in North Jersey Jan. 20. Discussions focused on expanding the talent pipeline for optical technology jobs and their national security applications.
The panel, which included representatives of Sussex County Community College (SCCC), Thorlabs, and New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, stressed the importance of identifying federal investment opportunities to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) training, and continue the public-private partnerships supporting SCCC’s optics technology programs.
“One of the great challenges of our time and in our community, for me, is protecting and creating good-paying jobs in every sector of the economy,“ said Gottheimer. “Schools of all types, but especially vocational and technical schools, are essential to training the workforce and the citizens of tomorrow.”
New Courses Offered
SCCC recently started its own optical technology program leading to an associate’s degree, with just over a dozen students. This coming fall, the program will expand to six courses from two courses.
Paul Melone, director of optics at Thorlabs, attended a Department of Defense-sponsored conference in Rochester, NY last year “and became enthused” about how the local college there works with all the optics firms in the area, drawn by Eastman Kodak which has remained in the business of optics, according to North Jersey Herald.
But the legacy of Kodak is the large number of small optical firms which need trained technicians, Melone said, drawing parallels to the North Jersey area where Thorlabs works with companies such as Esco Optics of Oak Ridge and Inrad Optics of Northvale.
Jon Connolly, president of SCCC, said he has the sense that “this industry is held back by the lack of trained people. We intend to supply that stream of people,” noting technical training, which a two-year college degree fills, is a position that must be filled by qualified Americans.
Gottheimer stressed the right connections are being made between schools, North Jersey employers, through public-private partnerships, and with federal grant and investment opportunities. “We need to continue making sure that the skill-sets being taught in our schools and are the skill-sets that businesses are looking for,” he said.
To that end, Jennifer Cable, head of strategic planning for Thorlabs, said the company “has double-digit growth every year, but it is inhibited by the lack of trained people.”
“Working with your hands is working with your brain as well,” said Connolly, especially in a highly-technical field as optics where understanding of such concepts as spherical aberration is needed.
Navid Entezarian, a manager at Thorlabs, and an adjunct professor at the newly-formed courses at SCCC, said half the students now enrolled at the college have a four-year degree.
“They couldn’t find work, so now they’re working on an associate’s degree,” he said.
Cable said Thorlabs hires those with two-year technical degrees “and then our company encourages our employees to go on to get four-year degrees.”