The future of industrial laser technology relies on attracting the next generation to the business
Several of us old timers-David Whitehouse, former LIA president; Connie Banas, Schawlow Award winner; and me, former LIA president and Schawlow Award winner-were sitting together with immediate Past President Joe O’Brien at a recent LIA Regional meeting where current President Bill Shiner was chairing the program. Seated with us and at adjoining tables were representatives of three close-by academic institutions that now offer courses in industrial laser technology and laser materials processing.
Closing the session Bill spoke passionately about the need to attract more young people to laser technology, which now employs more than 24,000 in the U.S. Passionately because this has been a compelling issue with him for most of the four decades I have known him. When we served as co-chairmen of the burgeoning Industrial Laser Committee of the LIA, which morphed into the Laser System Products Group of the SME, Bill used this forum to espouse his views on providing educational opportunities to young people interested in laser materials processing. And he rarely missed an opportunity to involve young people in the business.
Case in point, he has continually tapped the resources of a local community college for laser technicians, and he jokingly referred to this at our meeting by stating that he believes he has hired every graduate of this school.
The LIA has always been supportive of training programs for laser technicians and has extended this support to undergraduate programs at leading colleges and universities. I recall early efforts made in support of LIA student chapters while I was president. These were financially limited in those days, so activity was mainly to schedule visits to local chapters while traveling on business, where I would exhort the students to be contributors.
I used to envision myself as a sort of elder statesman for laser processing, with flocks of acolytes eagerly feasting on my words of wisdom. Didn’t happen; technology, in the form of the World Wide Web, interfered and today’s youth look to the glowing monitor for words of wisdom. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, the more I think about it, it may be the most expedient way for us to deliver Bill Shiner’s message that the future of laser technology depends on the youth we are educating.
Young people in Europe, especially in Germany and the UK, benefited from very generous government funding of secondary education in laser technology and it shows as an increasing number of industry leaders have sprung from various university programs. The Universities of Stuttgart and Liverpool are examples. At Stuttgart Helmut Hügel and Fredrick Dausinger have turned out legions of laser technologists, many now well placed in industry where they are leading opportunities for laser processing in manufacturing; and the same for Bill Steen and Ken Watkins at Liverpool whose students are making important contributions.
Bill Shiner’s call for action and industry support on a local level will, I think, be a keystone of his LIA presidency. His message is for us, those now practicing, to spread the word to high school students sparking their interest in advanced education in laser technology. My dinner companions expressed enthusiastic support of his efforts, and I have offered him assistance from ILS in his endeavor to attract young people to the technology. It’s a worthy goal and I encourage readers to contact a young student and offer to act as a mentor.
David A. Belforte