New training program provides opportunities for women

Sept. 1, 2001


In today's employment market, technologists are kings. Individuals with experience in a high-tech job, or those with technical skills, usually don't have to try too hard to land a job. They are so much in demand that employers often find themselves in a bidding war-offering special perks such as stock options, sign-on bonuses, and relocation fees-for the best and brightest. It's a sellers' market in the high-tech world, and it probably won't change anytime soon.

According to the April 2001 fourth annual Jobs in Photonics survey conducted by Photonics Spectra magazine, "layoffs and Wall Street notwithstanding, photonics is booming-and so is the job market." Yet, only three New England community-technical colleges currently train technicians at the associate degree level-and these programs graduate fewer than 30 technicians per year. In a market where demand is increasing and supply is decreasing, how can recruiters attract talent?

Last summer, CiDRA Corp. (Wallingford, CT) contacted Three Rivers Community College, a local two-year college that offers a well-known and respected photonics curriculum. What started as a recruiting call turned into an innovative partnership of government, public education, and private industry working together to provide opportunities for local women to enter the fiber-optic industry-and to support the growth of fiber-optic technology in the state through training and education.

Despite the current downturn in market conditions, Connecticut photonics-related manufacturing companies project a need to hire more than 1,000 new photonics workers in the coming years. In addition, the state-and industry-already has a shortage in precision manufacturing, where an aging workforce is being replaced by entry-level workers in need of training for positions including machine operator, machinist, and tool-and-die maker.

At the same time, women, who are often the only wage earners in single-parent families, constitute nearly 50% of the national labor force. To take advantage of this tremendous labor pool, Three Rivers, with support from CiDRA, proposed and received funding from the State of Connecticut Department of Labor to educate displaced or under-employed women.

Funded in part by monies targeting non-traditional occupations for women through the Department of Labor, an accelerated certificate program was created that enables participants to learn industry basics, be interview-ready, and earn valuable credit toward an associates degree.

With the first class under way, the training program's goal is to provide these former waitresses, truck drivers, certified nurses' aides, and medical technicians the opportunity to enter the higher-paying field of fiber-optic technology. The certificate program provides the education and training needed to qualify for an entry-level position in fiber-optic manufacturing.

The 9.5-college credit fiber-optic technology certificate program is held at Middlesex Community College (another partner in the program), with some laboratory activities held at CiDRA's headquarters in Wal lingford. Students receive credits for Introduction To Photonics, Laser Safety, Introduction to Fiber-Optic Technology, and Internet Applications. Middlesex Community College also provides math and science tutoring and basic employment skills.

Students learn fiber termination, splicing, handling, and other industry-specific skills through hands-on classes. In addition to free tuition, students enrolled in the program receive all supplies needed for the course, including textbooks, a scientific calculator, and an optics experiment kit. Students that successfully complete the program will be eligible to take the Fiber Optic Association Certification Test, also paid for by the grant.

Upon graduation from the program, technology companies can offer these women consideration of any open positions for which they might be eligible. At CiDRA, we plan to give priority to these graduates for many open positions.

Connecticut isn't the only state getting creative. In addition to this program, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE-Boston) has secured a grant from the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund Project PHOTON. This project is a unique program designed to educate teachers at all levels-elementary school through high school-about photonics.

The project's goal is to train New England middle school and secondary school educators and career counselors to introduce photonics education to students at an early age and create interest in photonics as a career. New England-based companies, through an industry advisory board, support the project while also hosting tours and workshops at their facilities.

In an effort to further engage women already employed in fiber-optic fields, the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE), is providing opportunities for women to connect with their peers. The organization has created a formal program, Women in Optics (WIO), to create a network for women working in optical-related fields. More information can be found on WIO at

It is hoped that through this network, more women will join the society and become involved in its activities. SPIE says the goal of WIO activities, such as an e-mail discussion list, is to provide a way for women in the optical field to communicate with one another, provide an informal mentorship program, and communicate information about SPIE or other programs and activities of interest to women. WIO members have working meetings throughout the year at various tradeshows, conferences, and informal networking dinners.

Employers want the best and brightest candidates, but they need employees with critical skills. With a narrow and diminishing pool of talent, the "cream of the crop" is hard to find. It's time to get creative. It's time to tap into a new pool of world-class talent and provide opportunity to a whole new generation of fiber-optic experts.

Bob Markoja is the technical training manager at CiDRA Corp. (Wallingford, CT). He can be reached via the company's Website, Three Rivers Community College can be reached via its Website,

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