Major contract for Tucson’s Optics Valley to help boost workforce

Arizona’s Optics Valley, a consortium of groups in the Tucson area that focus on the development of the state’s optics workforce, has been promoting the optics industry for more than 25 years, boosting companies and research channels operating in everything from microelectronics to nanotechnology to advanced manufacturing. Now, in a push to build on the awareness of the industry, Optics Valley has been awarded a $500,000 boost from a federal contract to help promote growth and formation of more optics companies in the region.

The contract was awarded to Strategy1, a small business consultancy in Tucson, which will use the funds to help the statewide optics industry group grow optics and photonics companies while giving more recognition to the $3 billion industry. The contract is good for the year but comes with an option to continue on for additional years at the same funding level.

Optics is the scientific study of light and sight–think sensors, radar, lasers, etc. Jobs in the field are related to things like radiation and mechanical engineering. Optics jobs have been showing up in everything from autonomous vehicles to missile defense companies.

The Arizona Technology Council y signed a collaborative agreement with the Arizona Optics Industry Association in 2016. This was executed to create the Optics Valley Committee, a group that promotes the state’s optics industry through job and research development, and B2B marketing. The contract has garnered support from the Tech Council, Pima Community College and the University of Arizona’s Tech Launch Arizona and Tech Parks Arizona. The contract awarded to Strategy1 will help boost efforts to create jobs and provide resources for people looking to pivot into the industry.

“If you think about optics today it is very much an enabling technology. The number of things that use optics are really tomorrow’s applications,” says John Dennis, president and co-founder, Strategy1, and co-chairman of Optics Valley. “If you want to be an automotive technician, you are going to need to know something about optics for all the cameras and sensors going into cars today. If you want to design products like cell phones you’re going to have to know about sophisticated optics.”

The optics committee contains about 75 members based in and around Tucson. It has plans to help shed more light on startups and new entrepreneurial efforts by giving more support to incubator programs. Some Tucson-based companies involved in the committee include AGM Container Controls, 4D Technology Corporation, Arizona Optical Systems, Optical Support Inc., Edmund Optics and InterOptics LLC.

For an example of what these companies do, 4D Technology Corp. designs and manufactures laser interferometers, surface gauges, and polarization cameras, which detect and measure physical properties that are not detectable using conventional imaging.

The money from the SBA grant will be used in part to inject more workforce development efforts in the region as well as mentoring and professional programs for existing companies. Currently, the optics industry has a worldwide shortage of workers and it’s only getting worse as the need for global optics, photonics, and imaging industry engineers is growing faster. What’s more, nearly 20 percent of experienced technicians and engineers are approaching retirement.

“We want to advance the visibility of optics,” says Dennis, who also notes that local Pima Community College is collaborating to boost its optics program. “There’s a high level of cooperation going on. The other part of workforce development is how do you get students to head into the Pima Community College program? So that means we’re going to need programs down in the high school level to get students acquainted with optics.”

Organizations that will provide networking and community support include the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Small Business Development Corporation and Startup Tucson.

Nick Esquer

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