ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Jamel Brown is among the 2022 graduates at East High. His post-high school plans include pursuing a career in Rochester’s $3 billion precision optics industry.
It’s an opportunity Rochester City School District students didn’t have access to prior to 2010. That’s the year Paul Conrow, with the help of a state grant, began purchasing equipment to build an optics precision lab at East High.
“As far back as the early 2000s, we knew there was going to be a shortage of craftsmen and craftswomen, artisans to carry on the legacy of this precision optics manufacturing in Rochester,” said Paul Conrow.
The veteran physics and chemistry teacher secured a commitment from several local company leaders as well as half a million dollars in education funding to build the lab at East High, the only one of its kind in Rochester.
“I polish glass. I’m technically an optical engineer,” said John Hall, a 21-year-old employee at Optimax Manufacturing who has been working there since he graduated from East High in 2019. “This is not something I imagined I would be doing. I honestly didn’t know anything about this.”
Hall earns over $20 an hour, along with bonuses and other perks, which he said allowed him to purchase his dream car recently.
Manufacturing glass or the optics used in aerospace, defense, medical, photography, telecommunications, and other digital electronics is not only rewarding but interesting and fun, according to Hall
Optimax is one of many manufacturers in the Rochester area, which is considered the epicenter of precision optics. Optimax Human Resources Director Alejandro Mendoza said they try to create an environment where there are lots of perks.
“We have just under 400 employees, hired 50 this year and the trend is continuing through the remainder of the year,” said Mendoza.
“If it wasn’t for East High I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today,” said Hall.
Hall’s sentiment is shared by Jamel Brown. In May, Brown signed on to work at Corning Incorporated which will pay for his Optics degree at Monroe Community College.
“I plan to pursue this program because I have experience,” said Brown. “It could be a job that I like and don’t have to worry about finding my path anywhere else and get stuck and don’t know where I want to go.”
“We need more programs that will change kids’ lives,” said Hall as he reflected on the opportunity. Both young men credit Conrow’s leadership, encouragement, and teaching style for their career paths.
Conrow said it was important for him to give students in the inner city access to what he calls good-paying jobs.
“I wanted an industry that was overlooking city residents, not overlook,” Conrow said. “They [employers] had never really found a pool of applicants that were ready and I said the only thing missing for these kids is the opportunity to know what it is to do optics. It just feels good to see them starting out in life and being excited about the work they do and what they can accomplish.”