It was 1985 when the State Board of Public Instruction, now the Iowa Department of Education, gave its approval for Indian Hills Community College to begin the first Laser/Electro-Optics training program in the state. More than three decades later the IHCC technology offering remains one of the premier programs of its kind in the U.S., sending graduates to work at over 150 different companies all across the country.
The Indian Hills program is now called Lasers & Optics Technology. The curriculum, which allows for over half the time in hands-on labs, deals with training on how to operate optical measuring equipment, and working on, testing, maintaining and troubleshooting high- and low-power laser systems.
IHCC instructor Michael Shay explains, “We are working with light and how to manipulate it to do what you want it to do, such as cutting through an inch of steel. Our graduates are starting great careers at places like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they are working on developing fusion energy with laser beams. They’re involved with laser weapons systems and installing laser production systems. Our grads have the opportunities to become laser service engineers and travel the world.”
As the program has evolved at IHCC, jobs, which at one time were located quite a distance from southeast Iowa, have become more plentiful closer to home as more companies in the Midwest integrate lasers into their processes. That has provided employment opportunities in Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio. Shay says the average starting wage for the most recent class of IHCC graduates was $57,500.
In February, Indian Hills will be represented at Photonics West, the largest laser and optics convention in the country. At the event in California Indian Hills students are able to network with dozens of companies and experience the industry in a large-scale fashion, Shay says. “It is an eye-opening experience for our students and many of them walk away from the trip having a good idea of where they want to end up after they graduate.”
Photonics West also serves as an alumni event for Indian Hills lasers and optics grads, many of whom are employed in that area.
“A person doesn’t have to be a straight ‘A’ student in math and science in high school to be successful in our program,” Shay says. “A genuine interest in science can really take a person a long way. Once the interest is there, we introduce math to make it logical and students seem to get a firm grip of the concepts and tend to do very well. A good attitude and good work ethic will take a student a long way,” he concludes.
The program, which is seven terms or 21 months in length, boasts a placement rate of nearly 100 percent and Shay adds this is one of the academic programs at Indian Hills where students often have a job waiting for them once they graduate.
Jeff Henderson, Advanced Manufacturing Technologies Program Director, or Michael Shay can be contacted at Indian Hills for more information on the Lasers and Optics Technology program.