School Subjects: Computer science, Mathematics, Physics
Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative Technical/scientific
Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location
Minimum Education Level: Associate’s degree
Salary Range: $21,000 to $38,000 to $67,729
Certification or Licensing: None available
Outlook: Faster than the average
Laser technicians produce, install, operate, service, & test laser systems & fiber optics equipment in industrial, medical, or research settings. They work under the direction of engineers or physicists who conduct laboratory activities in laser research & development or design. Depending upon the type of laser system—gas or solid state—a technician generally works either with information systems or with robotics, manufacturing, or medical equipment.
The laser was invented in 1958 by the American physicist Gordon Gould. The first working model was a ruby laser designed & built by Dr. Ted Maiman in 1960. This first working laser created great interest in scientific research laboratories & started intensive experimentation & development in the field of electro-optics.
The word laser is actually an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The laser converts electrical power into a special beam of optical or light power. Laser light is different from white light, or light that's produced by ordinary sources. It travels in a parallel beam, diffusing much less than white light. It is also composed of a single color wavelength as opposed to the jumble of colored light waves that make up white light. Because of these unique properties, laser light can be used in a number of different ways.
After its discovery, engineers & scientists considered using the light beam’s power in the same ways as electrical power. From 1960 to 1967, various new lasers & electro-optic devices & techniques were developed. Some had considerable optical power, while others had only a small amount of power.
It soon became clear that lasers could be used in a great many ways to solve problems that previously had no practical solution. For example, the concentrated beams of laser light were so powerful that they could drill tiny holes in diamonds, taking minutes where old methods took days.
Lasers began to be used in practical applications, such as surgery; Surveying & measuring, industrial product inspection & testing, computers, microprocessors, & manufacturing. As lasers moved from research laboratories to industry, a need arose for workers who were trained in the practical application & technical aspects of the field. In the early 19 two-year technical institutes & community colleges began offering specialized training programs in laser technology. The position of laser technician has become a valuable & necessary one in many industries, medical settings, & research programs.
There are basically two types of laser systems with which laser technicians work: semiconductor laser systems, which are the most com pact & reliable, & gas-type lasers, which are larger & more expensive.
Laser technicians working with semiconductor systems are involved mainly with computer & telephone systems. In addition to helping to test, install, & maintain these systems, technicians work with engineers in their design & improvement.
Technicians who work with gas-type systems usually assist scientists, engineers, or doctors. These systems are used primarily in the fields of robotics, manufacturing, & medical procedures.
Laser technicians perform a wide variety of tasks. Much depends upon their positions & places of employment. For example, some repair lasers & instruct companies on their use, while others work as technicians for very specific applications, such as optical surgery or welding parts.
In general, most technicians are employed in one of five areas:
materials processing, communications, military, medical, & research. Technicians are involved in building laser devices in any one of these fields. To build a solid-state laser, they construct, cut, & polish a crystal rod to be used in the laser. They put a flash tube around the crystal & place the unit in a container with a mirror at each end. Using precision instruments, they position the mirrors so that all emitted or reflected light passes through the crystal. Finally, they put the laser body in a chassis, install tubing & wiring to the controls, & place a jacket around the assembly.
There are other duties that all technicians perform, no matter what application they work in. These include taking measurements, cleaning, aligning, inspecting, & operating lasers, & collecting data. Since the laser field is so technologically advanced, computers are used in many tasks & applications. Technicians may be responsible for programming the computers that control the lasers, for inputting data, or for generating reports.
In materials processing, lasers are used for machining, production, measurement, construction, excavation, & photo-optics. Technicians often read & interpret diagrams, schematics, & shop drawings in order to assemble components themselves or oversee the assembly process. They may operate lasers for welding, precision drilling, cutting, & grinding of metal parts, or for trimming & slicing electronic components & circuit elements. They may use lasers to verify precise parts sizes. Finally, technicians may be involved in part marking—using a laser to mark an identifying number or letter on each component. In construction, they may use a laser as a surveying guideline or an aligning tool.
Laser technicians in communications use lasers to generate light impulses transmitted through optical fibers. They help to develop, manufacture, & test optical equipment, & they may design, set up, monitor, & maintain fiber fabrication facilities. This field also uses lasers for data storage & retrieval.
In military & space projects, lasers are frequently used for tar get finding, tracking, ranging, identification, & communications. Technicians repair & adapt low-power lasers, which are widely used for these applications.
In medical applications, technicians serve as technical equipment experts & assist physicians & surgeons who use the laser system. They advise on which type of laser & method of delivery to use. They must be on hand during laser procedures to offer recommendations, fine-tune attachments & machines, & troubleshoot if a technical problem occurs.
In research & development, lasers are being studied as a source of high-intensity heat in controlled nuclear fusion. These studies are part of the continuing research to produce inexpensive electrical power. Technicians on any research & development team use lasers & electronic devices to perform tests, take measurements, gather data, & make calculations. They may prepare reports for engineers, doctors, scientists, production managers, or lab workers.
You can prepare for this career by taking four years of English & at least two years of mathematics, one of which should be algebra. At least one year of physical science, preferably physics, should be included, as well as a class in basic computer programming. Machine shop, basic electronics, & blueprint reading classes are also useful.
Most laser technicians enter the field after attending a two-year program in laser technology at a vocational, technical, or community college. The average associate’s degree program in laser technology includes intensive technical & scientific study, with more hours spent in a laboratory or work situation than in the actual classroom. This hands-on experience is supplemented in the first year by courses in mathematics, physics, drafting, diagramming, basic electronics, electronic instrumentation & calibration, introduction to solid-state devices, electromechanical controls, & computer programming.
The second year of study might include courses in geometrical optics, digital circuits, microwaves, laser & electro-optic components, devices & measurements, vacuum techniques, technical report writing, micro computers, & computer hardware. Special laser projects are often a part of the second year & can help you decide on a specific field. Even after completing your education, you will probably need further training depending on your employer’s requirements.
You must have an interest in instruments, laboratory apparatus, & how devices & systems work. Written & spoken communications are very important since you often have to work closely with people of varied technological backgrounds.
Physical strength is not usually required, but good manual dexterity & hand—eye & body coordination are quite important. Because lasers can be extremely dangerous, you must be careful, attentive, & willing to follow safety precautions closely. The ability to work efficiently, patiently, & consistently is extremely important, as is the ability to solve problems & do careful, detailed work.
Talk to your school counselor about careers in laser technology. If you live near a community or technical college that offers programs in laser technology, visit the institution & talk with counselors & teachers. In addition, review some of the periodicals that are devoted to the field of lasers. Periodicals such as the Journal of Laser Applications & Laser Focus World may offer valuable insight into the field.
Lasers are used in so many places that it should be fairly easy to find a local laser technician, operator, or engineer who can share knowledge about his or her job. It might be possible to find summer or part-time work in construction, manufacturing, or mining where lasers are used in measuring, cutting & welding, & surveying. This type of work can give you a look at jobs in laser technology.
Laser technicians work in manufacturing, communications, medicine, scientific research, the military, & construction. Approximately 80 percent of all laser technicians are employed in California, Florida, Massachusetts, & New Mexico.
Colleges that offer associate’s degrees in laser technology usually work closely with industry, providing their graduating students with placement services & lists of potential employers. Most laser technicians graduating from a two-year program, in fact, are interviewed & recruited while still in school by representatives of companies that need laser technicians. If hired, they begin working soon after graduation.
Another way to enter the career is to join a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces under a technical training program for laser technicians. Military laser training is not always compatible with civilian training, however, & further study of theory & applications may be needed to enter the field as a civilian.
Opportunities for advancement in laser technology are excellent for technicians who keep up with advances in the field. In such a relatively new technology, developments occur very rapidly. Workers who learn about & adapt to these changes become more valuable to their employers & advance to greater responsibilities.
Many employers designate various grades or levels for laser technicians, according to experience, education, & job performance. By being promoted through these levels, technicians can advance to supervisory or managerial positions. Supervisors manage a department, supervise other technicians, & train new or current employees.
Mature, experienced, & highly successful laser technicians may become consultants or specialists for individual firms. A consulting position entails working closely with clients, conducting studies & surveys, & proposing improvements, changes, & solutions to problems.
Some technicians move into sales or technical writing positions. Others become instructors in vocational programs, teaching inter mediate or advanced laser & fiber optics technology courses.
According to a survey done by the Laser Institute of America, the overall average starting salary for laser technicians ranges from $21,000 to $25,000 per year. Salaries for technicians with at least five years of experience average approximately $30,000 per year, depending on background, experience, & the industry where they are employed.
In addition to salary, technicians usually receive benefits such as insurance, paid holidays & vacations, & retirement plans. Many employers have liberal policies of paying for professional improvement through continued study in school or at work.
A 1999 Economic Research Institute study reports that laser technicians with one year of experience earned between $26,367 & $38,465 a year. Those with five years of experience earned between $37,145 & $54,188 a year. Laser technicians with 10 years of experience earned between $46,427 & $67,729. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median salaries for laser technicians were $38,000 a year (or $18.25 an hour) in 2000.
Working conditions for laser technicians vary according to the industry. Some technicians spend their day in a laboratory, while others work in a hospital operating room, office, or manufacturing plant. In most cases, however, work areas are kept clean & temperature controlled in order to protect the laser equipment.
Laser technicians may work at relatively stationary jobs, assembling or operating lasers in the same environment every day, or they may be required to move around frequently, in & out of laboratory areas, production sites, or offices. Some technicians are office or laboratory based; others, especially those in sales & service positions, may travel the country.
Laser technicians typically work regular hours. Five eight-hour days per week is the standard, although certain projects may occasionally require overtime.
There are possible hazards in most areas where lasers are used. Because the power supplies for many lasers involve high voltages, technicians frequently work around potentially deadly amounts of electricity. The laser beam itself is also a possible source of serious injury, either through direct exposure to the beam or by reflected light from the laser. Safety precautions, such as wearing protective glasses, are strictly enforced.
Laser technicians handle extremely valuable instruments. The parts used to make lasers are almost always costly. Mistakes that damage lasers or errors in applying lasers can be very costly, running into the thousands of dollars.
Technicians often work as part of a production team or supervisory group, sometimes with scientists & engineers, sometimes as a member of a production team or supervisory group. Some technicians work alone but usually report directly to an engineer, scientist, or manager.
Among the greatest sources of satisfaction for laser technicians is the feeling of success whenever they meet a challenge & see their laser systems perform correctly. This is especially true in sales & service where new users are taught to use this complicated technology & where the technician can actually see customers discovering the effectiveness of lasers. The same satisfaction is felt in research when a new development is proved to be a success.
Employment opportunities for laser technicians are expected to be good over the next several years. Rapid changes in technology & continued growth in the industry will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number of technicians employed. Currently the demand far outweighs the supply of qualified laser technicians.
One of the fastest growing areas for laser technicians is fiber optic systems that are used in communications. Optical fiber is replacing wire cables in communication lines & in many electronic products. This trend is expected to continue, so the demand for technicians in the fiber optics field should be especially strong. Growth is also expected to be strong in production, defense, medicine, & construction. Technicians interested in research & development, how ever, should keep in mind that job growth often slows in the face of economic downturns.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For information on becoming a laser technician, contact
13501 Ingenuity Drive, Suite 128
Orlando, FL 32826
For information on laser technology & student sections, contact
Lasers & Electro-Optics Society (LEOS)
P0 Box 1331
445 Hoes Lane
Piscataway, NJ 08855-1331
Don Stevens & Mike Reid are laser instructors in the laser/electro optics technology program at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) in Ottumwa, Iowa. Students who complete the 21-month program are awarded an associate of applied science degree. Gray & Reed spoke with the editors of Career Resource Basics about careers in laser technology & their school’s program.
Q. For what types of jobs does the study of laser/electro technology prepare students?
A. Our students are hired directly out of school as field service engineers, sales engineers, quality control technicians, manufacturing technicians, maintenance technicians, & training specialists.
Q. What are the most important qualities for students in your program?
A. To be successful, students must have good interpersonal skills, the ability to learn, & good communication skills. The employers who hire our students know they will have a great technical foundation after 21 months at IHCC.
Q. What advice do you have to offer students as they graduate from your program & look for jobs?
A. Most students have jobs before they graduate, if they are looking. The best advice we have is “You get out what you put in?’ When students first enter our program, we let them know that they are in training, like Olympic athletes. They are in a national competition for jobs. Have they ever trained for a national com petition? It takes a considerable amount of effort early in the pro gram. The harder they train (study) now, the better they’ll do in the job hunt.
Also, students should know their support group & constraints. Family & friends have a huge influence on each student’s job decision, as they should. Students need to ask themselves the following questions: Where in the nation or world do they want to work? What type of job are they looking for? How much pay & what benefits will they need or want?
Q. What common misconceptions do people have about this field of study?
A. The only misconceptions we can think of is the myth or mind- set that laser technology is “too difficult” EVERY student at Indian Hills, at least for the past 10 years, who comes to class & does work in the lab, has passed & has a super job.
Also, our program is not just about laser technology. The laser is only one part of what the students learn, We teach photonics, which is anything that has to do with a photon: light, imaging, detection, display, industrial applications, medical applications, LEDs [light emitting diodes], military, space, & especially optics.
Q. What changes in the job market should students expect?
A. There are always unexpected changes in the job market—usually good. Photonics is such a broad technology, if one industry is down, another is usually up. So our students have a wide range of companies & industries to pursue; there is always a job out there. We, really the students, contact so many new companies every year—they find out about us, we find out about them — & a new relationship begins.
In the past few years medical companies, government contractors, & research facilities have hired most of our graduates.
Q. What is the future of your program?
A. The future of our program is stability with growth. The IHCC Laser Program has held steady for over five years when other programs around the nation seem to be struggling or have closed their doors. We continue to have great job placement & we don't see that slowing.