Photonics Tour

Waded Cruzado speaks to Governor Steve Bullock about the Photonics and Laser Technology Program during a tour Friday morning at Montana State University.

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Travis Roth said he was working “a dead-end job” when he saw something about Gallatin College’s new two-year program training students for good-paying jobs building lasers.

“It seemed a great opportunity,” said the student from Choteau.

Now starting their second year of classes in photonics and laser technology, Roth and six Gallatin College classmates are working toward their associate of arts degrees — and already have jobs at Bozeman’s laser manufacturers.

“I’ve been loving it,” said classmate Sam Fritz.

Also loving it are laser companies like Quantel and FLIR.

“We’ve always struggled with recruitment,” said Jason Yager, operations manager at Quantel, which has already hired three of the students. Gallatin College’s training program, he said, “has been a huge blessing.”

Gov. Steve Bullock came to Montana State University on Friday as part of his effort to highlight innovative things happening in Montana education on the first week of classes.

Visiting the new photonics lab on the second floor of AJM Johnson Hall, the governor learned about the latest success at Gallatin College, MSU’s two-year affiliate, in helping to train students for better jobs, fill the needs of local industry and grow the economy.

“One of the biggest challenges I hear,” Bullock said, is from business owners who tell him, “I need a trained workforce.

“This is a pathway to a better-paying job,” the governor told the students, “that will keep you in Montana.”

Trent Berg, who worked for 13 years in the photonics industry, came up with the idea for the laser technology program and Gallatin College offered him a position as program director. He won a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant to help launch the training program.

One of his students was pushing a shovel on a road construction crew and his body was breaking down, Berg said. The laser tech program gave him an alternative to manual labor.

“It’s super rewarding to see these guys’ lives change,” Berg said.

Gallatin College, founded in 2005 to train students in skills needed in the workforce, has grown to 475 degree-seeking students, said Sarah Maki, associate dean.

It has expanded from four degree programs to a dozen, including aviation, interior design, welding and high-tech precision machining.

“We worked closely with industry,” Maki said, to start the computer-numerical-controlled machining program. “The majority of our students are hired in the program – often the first semester.

“We want to be sure we’re training students for jobs right here in Bozeman and the greater Gallatin Valley,” she said. “We’re very excited.”

This fall Gallatin College is starting two new programs – culinary arts and computer networking. Except for those brand new programs, said Charlynn “Charly” Malcom, workforce navigator, “All our programs are full.”

One advantage of Gallatin College, Malcom said, is that tuition costs half what it costs Montana students for a semester at four-year MSU.

“Our students average $15 a hour when they graduate,” she said, compared to bachelor’s degrees that may average $12.

Westen McWilliams, a 22-year-old from Helena, said he decided to try the associate’s degree in photonics and laser technology after his grandmother read about it.

“I’ve been working for Quantel since March,” said fellow student Daniel Kuckler of Billings. “I’m in the lab every day. It’s so fun and fascinating.”

“I can’t say enough about Trent and his vision,” said Zack Cole, director at FLIR Systems. “He saw a need and he did something about it.”

MSU President Waded Cruzado said the university is trying to create a kind of “building block” sequence, so students who start at Gallatin College and discover they love lasers could consider seeking a bachelor’s degree and minor in the field, then seek a master’s degree. Someday she said she hopes MSU can offer a Ph.D. in lasers and photonics.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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