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The US Photonics Job Market: Is It Getting Better?

Photonics Spectra
May 2004
As you talk with people in the photonics industry, you detect a hint of optimism regarding business for the rest of 2004. Some companies have started to see an upswing, which is beginning to be reflected in the want ads.

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Because many companies downsized during the economic downturn and have been operating at a bare-bones level, they are now facing staffing problems. More companies are openly recruiting, and some are bemoaning the fact that finding the right skilled labor is not easy.

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For people in the photonics industry, the overall salary picture tends to be fairly healthy. Although there were massive layoffs in 2001, salaries have not taken a parallel dip.

Our salary survey shows that the median wage for all categories grew from $80,500 in 2003 to $83,000 this year. This is an accurate representation of the median 3 percent raise that our readers received during the past year, and it reverses the slight dip that we experienced in 2003. The median salary in 2002 was $83,000 and in 2001, $78,300.

Pg120_JobsFeature.jpgThis is the seventh year that we have conducted a salary survey. After our first one, we changed some of the questions and the way in which we reported the results. We switched the focus of our reporting from an average to a median because this is a more accurate means of looking at actual salaries. One or two salaries that might not realistically represent what others are earning may skew the results too much.

Back in 1998, we reported the average salary as being $67,000. Comparing this with the average salary of $95,300 in 2004, this appears to represent a dramatic rise in compensation.

PhDs have seen the most dramatic rise in wages, with their average salary in 1998 topping out at $70,000 as compared with $113,100 this year. Those with a bachelor’s degree have seen their average salary go from $57,809 to $80,000 during the same period.

Pg122_JobsFeature.jpgInterestingly enough, the market has not changed much in other ways over seven years. Then, the average age was 49, and employees had been with their companies for 10 years.

Job surveys always present some interesting contradictions. Job satisfaction in the industry slipped from 80 percent in 2002 to 72 percent this year, but the percentage of people looking for a new job decreased from 25 percent in 2002 to 20 percent this year.

The photonics job market tends to provide employment stability. Employees have worked for a median of three companies in their 25 years on the job, and they have been working for their current employer for seven years.

One of our favorite parts of the questionnaire is where we ask: “What is the toughest problem you find working in the photonics industry?” As always, the responses have a wide range, from the technological: “Ever-tightening tolerances. Even higher laser energy levels. I know it’s the way life is” to the managerial: “Finding good engineers to work on my projects.”

Pg123_JobsFeature.jpgThe overriding answer — one that seems to be a constant problem for many in photonics — is very telling: “Keeping up with changing technology.” There is no doubt that this industry goes through constant evolution, but maybe that is why job satisfaction tends to remain high. We don’t have time to get bored.


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