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Diligence Turns Mid-Career Shock into Successful Photonics Technician Career

Photonics technican in lab garb

Richard Spencer did not expect to change careers when he was 46. When a mid-career change was foisted on him four years ago, however, he used his mechanical skills and a contact he had made during his 18-year cable industry career to get hired as a technician at Harris, now L3Harris Technologies Inc., in Melbourne, Florida.

Spencer pushed past his initial anger and anxiety about having to start a new career, to use his mechanical know-how and strong work ethic to learn photonics technology skills on the job and in college. His opinion of his former boss has softened as his new career has taken off.

“By virtue of him letting me go, he opened doors I didn’t know were there,” Spencer said of his former employer. Those open doors have led to Spencer earning pay raises, promotions, an associate degree, and – if his applications to the U.S. Patent Office are approved – two patents for innovative photonics technology processes that he devised.

“Don’t be afraid if you have to make a career change. You never know. Four years ago, I would have called you crazy if you would have told me I would be working on quantum computers. It wasn’t even a spark in the back of my head that I would be doing something like that. Now that I am, I wish I would have been here 20 years ago,” Spencer said.

His boss describes Spencer as “exceptional” and “very multi-disciplined.” Michael R. Lange, senior scientist and L3Harris Senior Fellow in the Photonics and Quantum Sciences Department at L3Harris, said Spencer has advanced quickly because he had mechanical skills and a background in radio frequencies, earned an associate’s degree and continues to teach himself new skills

“The work we do requires incredible precision because we are working on the level of interfering photons on detectors and through complex systems of acousto-optic devices and mirrors … It requires extreme precision down to micron tolerances. And Rich is just very, very skilled in the lab, very careful, very meticulous in the lab as well as he’s clever and innovative, and is always looking to learn more. I give lectures on quantum mechanics sometimes and he sits in on them to pick up what he can to understand exactly what the devices that he’s building are doing,” Lange said.

Lucky Job Assignment Leads to Photonics Technology Career

Spencer calls it “blind luck” that he was placed in the additive manufacturing section of the photonics department at the company then known as Harris. While monitoring 3D printers as they built parts, he would pepper the “photonics guys” – the electro-optics engineers – with questions about photonics.

“Through that diligence I worked my way into the quantum group … almost immediately I was in charge of assembly and alignment. But at the time I had no idea what this light was doing when it was going through this glass. Those were things I learned. But it was the physical part, the mechanics that I was good at, and I wanted to know more. It was fascinating to me that we were manipulating ions. We’re setting them up or spinning them down. We were getting data off an ion! And how they all interact with each other when they are entangled is just the coolest thing,” Spencer said during a recent Zoom interview.

His curiosity and persistence prompted his supervisor to recommend that he enroll in the photonics program at Indian River State College. Although the hour-long commute to campus after work meant more time away from his family, Spencer enrolled immediately and took as many courses each term as possible.

“I knew if I wanted to go further I would have to take the initiative and go to school,” he said, acknowledging that is it was daunting to learn calculus and trigonometry as a middle-aged guy balancing a full-time job and his family’s needs. His son and daughter were adolescents at the time.

It helped tremendously that the photonics courses taught by Chrysanthos Panayiotou seemed “tailor-made for a technician in my photonics department. Everything I learned there I put to use in my daily activities, and that’s what enabled me to really excel,” Spencer said.

Panayiotou is a professor of electronics engineering technology, executive director of the Kight Center for Emerging Technology, and principal investigator of the Center for Laser and Fiber Optics Education (LASER-TEC). Both centers are at Indian River State College’s campus in Fort Pierce, Florida. LASER-TEC, uses grant funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program to develop curriculum in lasers, photonics, optics, and fiber optics and to help colleges start these high-tech programs.

Spencer credits the lessons learned while earning the associate degree that he completed in May 2020 with his promotion to engineering services supervisor and his applications for two patent applications in the past two years. He submitted the first application while still working on his degree. He’s particularly proud of the system he devised that improves lens alignment within a tool. It reduces assembly time from 72 hours to 4 hours, and saves $10,000.

“It [the degree] helped me become more of a team player because I can do things on my own,” he said explaining that the photonics courses sharpened his knowledge and skills so he can work more efficiently. “I don’t need anyone to hold my hand anymore, and that’s when you can get you own ideas.”

Advice to aspiring technicians

Now as a supervisor Spencer has job duties that include passing on his photonics knowledge to novice technicians. He also serves on the panel that interviews technician applicants.

He has these suggestions for aspiring technicians:

  1. Have a well written, but concise resume. Take the fluff out. Do a spell check before sending it.
  2. Speak clearly during the phone or video interview that many companies use to screen applicants.
  3. Know your way around an Excel spread sheet and how to enter data in it.
  4. Learn Visual Basic and other computer software.
  5. Earn an associate degree.

After technicians are hired, Spencer thinks they should dig in. “To be a successful technician you have to come in with the mindset that you’re going to work hard to move up to become a specialist or an engineer because you can do it. You have to put a lot of work into it,” he said.

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