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Photonics Jobs: What to Expect in 2003

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Brent D. Johnson, Senior News Editor

The glut of qualified professionals in search of work must face the reality of the new economy: stiff competition, lower salaries and fewer perks. Honing your job-hunting skills and developing a sense of cultural awareness could help.
How quickly times change. A few years ago, market analysts were intoxicated with the flush of new wealth and declared the new economy unbounded by traditional rules of the market. These wizards of Wall Street informed us that we would have to adapt our rather circumscribed thinking to the concept of an economy with no ceiling and of growth without end.

If industry analysts were hoping for a 24-hour version of the economic flu, the December unemployment figures, which jumped from 5.7 to 6 percent, put that notion to rest. Photonics suppliers — the ones who are left — are staring into the maw of a long-term recession.

Getting back in the game

Some engineers who wisely put aside cash during the boom spent some time away from the industry last year. Yet, as the economy endures another grueling winter and cash reserves have been depleted, they are suddenly realizing that it may be a couple of more years before they can get back in the game. This has led to some rather desperate scrambling in recent weeks.

Cliff Bickford of Microvision and Lumera, both in Bothell, Wash., said that he has been in the industry for 22 years and that he has never seen a job market like this. Some people have been out of work for a year or more, and a plethora of good candidates is available, he said. When Bickford lists an opening, he is inundated. He is careful to point out that quantity doesn’t necessarily imply quality, but in general it has been pretty good.

On the day I spoke with him, he had just hired a staff scientist for Lumera. What were his qualifications? “He had the right background, the right experience, emotional intelligence, energy and excitement about the job,” Bickford said.

Breault Research Organization Inc. in Tucson, Ariz., is known for its Advanced System Analysis Program, which is in its 20th year of development. Every year, 250 optical engineers from around the world visit the company’s training facility to receive advanced software training and become certified.

Kathleen Perkins, vice president of sales and marketing, said it has become an optics Mecca. As a result, cultural sensitivity is very important, she said. Half of the company’s business is overseas, so the subtle nuances of words, inflection and phrasing in providing technical support is critical. She recommends that job candidates supplement their engineering skills with cultural awareness and customer focus, and wrap that into all phases of business. Optics is a global business, and optical applications are bringing together people from a variety of backgrounds. “The engineer needs to be business-friendly. You don’t just work in San Jose. You work with their counterparts in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.”

The antics of Tyco International’s Dennis Kozlowski and his colleagues have focused quite a bit of attention on executive salaries in the past year. Board members who were willing to sign off on huge compensation packages are now resigning in droves, and at least for the moment, some sanity has been restored to these negotiations.

However, receiving huge salaries may be the least of executives’ concerns in the current market. In fact, getting any kind of salary seems to be the trick nowadays.

Mary Rutland of CVI Laser Corp. in Albuquerque, N.M., thinks that some engineers are asking for unrealistic salaries. One applicant she interviewed from California was asking for $120,000 to move to CVI’s facility. “Don’t be so tied into the salaries of the past, but look at opportunities for the job being offered,” she advised.

Debbie Horne of Indigo Systems Corp. in Santa Barbara, Calif., agrees. The company has 17 openings, including positions for test engineers and product engineers, and some high-level people such as former CEOs and vice presidents are starting to apply for these jobs. She believes that the telecom industry overinflated salaries tremendously and that people must set their sights a little bit lower.

Brad Cobb, who focuses on recruiting for fiber optics for Management Recruiters of Provo, Utah, said that a number of people have contacted him to get his assessment of the salaries that are being offered. He estimates that the pay scale for executives has slipped by 10 to 15 percent.

Injury + insult = overqualified

As former executives try to reintegrate into the new world of photonics, they are finding in many instances that their experience is hurting rather than helping them. After working so hard for so many years, there is perhaps no more cruel a fate than to be rejected for being overqualified. Many in the photonics industry who suffered the indignity of losing their jobs have readjusted their mental framework to consider jobs that they performed as students, only to be told that they overshoot the profile by five years and an advanced degree.

At Diversified Optical Products Inc. in Salem, N.H., Jeffrey Bergeron said that people with 10 or more years of experience are applying for entry-level positions. The problem, he said, is that they have an expectation of higher salaries that his company cannot afford.

Cobb brought another perspective to the situation. He said that, when experienced people are being turned down for entry-level jobs, it’s not only because they have different expectations. The main reason is concern that they may get bored or discouraged and leave. Another is that the hiring manager doesn’t want to hire someone who could be a threat.

When ‘no’ really means ‘no’

Without a doubt, the single biggest piece of advice that is universally shared by recruiters is to be persistent. The process of applying for jobs can be long and grueling. Candidates often are faced with rejection before they even get to talk to a recruitment manager. The key is to view the process as a numbers game.

Sandra Chroman of New Wave Research in Fremont, Calif., suggested that candidates continue to follow up, even after they have been turned down. The company hired an engineering director on the day we spoke and was preparing an offer for a senior-level sales representative. It also is interviewing candidates for a laser technician and a quality manager. She said that company needs change; a job that wasn’t open today could be shortly to accommodate growth plans or to replace an employee who leaves.

There is a fine line between being persistent and being scary, however. As times have grown tougher, some candidates are adopting tactics that can be detrimental to their cause. Indigo Systems’ Horne said that there are a lot of candidates and not enough companies, and that she sees applicants becoming extremely aggressive. “They are in your face, demanding interviews,” she said. “That’s really hard.” When people speak out of desperation, you wonder if there are other underlying issues, she added.

Be specific

Now that companies have shed excess pounds and tightened their belts, there seems to be much less call for the generalist. Previously, if you had optics experience, Cobb said, they could usually find a place for you to fit in. Today it’s more challenging. Companies have honed their job requirements, and hiring is need-oriented. “If they request someone with RF [radio frequency] transponder experience, they want someone who has built RF transponders, not just someone who has done simulations,” he said.

Because New Wave Research has only 70 employees and everyone on staff must make a contribution, it seeks more experienced people. Chroman said employees don’t have time to do mentoring. A new employee is expected to hit the ground running.

Glenn Goodson, staffing manager at Lumileds Lighting in San Jose, Calif., said that when openings occur, they typically are for R&D techs for building demos, line technicians and senior process development technicians who can do reliability and failure analysis. “There is no such thing as having a single résumé,” he said. Individuals may have a broad range of skills, and he focuses on the specific ones.


Technology companies have traditionally avoided going outside of company walls for technical assistance, preferring instead to jealously guard whatever modicum of intellectual property they have. But as the hiring squeeze has put pressure on engineering departments, many recruiters are looking at consultants as a stopgap measure. These hired guns of the engineering profession possess a breadth of experience and come with no strings attached.

John Otten of Kestrel Corp. in Albuquerque said that it’s difficult to find someone with lens design experience, particularly with hardware experience in biomedical imaging. Companies have had to work with consultants to fill in the gaps.

Goodson said that he has seen more consulting these days. Rather than hiring a full-time permanent person to troubleshoot occasional process problems, companies are taking a hard look at their ongoing needs. Consultants offer flexibility. Goodson views them as a kind of mercenary force.

“It’s true that companies have been relying more on consultants rather than [on filling] full-time research positions,” said Michal L. Peri of Peri Technologies in Irvine, Calif., “but the trend started five to seven years ago.” She said that it has been a little bit tighter this year as companies have been cutting their budgets, but that she is holding her rates steady.

James Lawless of CFC Processing in Easton, Pa., said that the company he works for used to have 10 to 12 consultants, but that he is the only one left after some cost-cutting last year. He has reduced his rates by about 15 percent to adjust for the shift in the economy.

Roger Freeman is a consultant who was hired recently to do a report on telecom software systems. This was the first contract he’d had in a year, but despite the dry season, he hasn’t changed his rates. He did have some advice for recruiters, however. He suggested that people who are in need of a good consultant contact Lucent Technologies Inc. and ask for its list of retirees, who now number about 100,000. Freeman said that these people just want something to do. They’ll take as little as $30 or $40 an hour. He said that he knows a former vice president of AT&T who is working overseas for $50 an hour just to keep occupied.

‘The old boy network’

What was once considered taboo among human resources professionals is now one of the most popular methods for finding recruits. Networking, sometimes referred to politely as “the old boy network,” is gaining acceptance for the simple reason that it is cost-effective.

Gerald Gottheil of JDS Uniphase in San Jose said that competitive outreach can be quite expensive. When the market was at its peak, he said, consultants were needed to help with recruiting at all levels, aggressively seeking qualified applicants. Since then, recruiting programs have been greatly reduced, including external contractors, internal staff and traditional advertising. Companies rely more on informal referral networks and advertise on their Web sites.

It’s no secret that, as the economy becomes dormant, people find refuge in universities. According to Dave Brady of the Fitzpatrick Center in Durham, N.C., there was a big spike when companies were laying off people. Graduate applications were up by 50 to 100 percent.

Eric Van Stryland of the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers at the University of Central Florida in Orlando said that there is a slight inverse relationship between student applications and the economy. When the economy is not doing well, people want to make themselves more marketable.

Jim Moharam, also of the center, said that more people are enrolling in the program. The primary interest is in fiber optics. The question is, are graduates getting jobs? The number of offers is getting smaller, he said. Although salaries are also down, there are exceptions. One grad student received a starting salary of $125,000. Generally, the salaries have been in the high $80,000s and $90,000s but, on average, they are $10,000 less than before.

Annette Cyr from ILX Lightwave Corp. in Bozeman, Mont., said that, although advanced degrees are still desirable, hands-on experience is more important. The company is looking for a project manager with direct experience in laser diode testing and a BS in electrical engineering or physics. But, she added, “It’s a very different salary for someone with five years’ experience vs. someone with 10 years’ experience. It could mean a difference of $20,000 to $30,000.”

According to Jim Wyant of Arizona State University’s Center for Optics in Tucson, applications from college seniors have doubled. The center’s program has 50 industrial affiliate member companies and receives $20 million in grants from both the government and industry. Upon graduation, 15 percent of the students remain in Tucson, and starting salaries for PhDs range from the low $80,000s up to $100,000, depending on experience.

Keep options open

Hampton University in Virginia has a small program for optics and photonics. The school had an enrollment decline this year as it came to the end of a NASA-sponsored program, which was relocated to Norfolk State University. Whether this has anything to do with the economy is questionable, said Uwe Hommerich, an associate professor in the program. Some students graduated recently with master’s degrees, and their job opportunities were extremely limited. A few years ago they were hired very quickly.

Hommerich also said that some people want professorial appointments because academics is more stable. The center was interviewing an individual who was formerly at a small optics facility. It also has a student who returned to the program after having been laid off. The students, in general, are less comfortable with pure basic research. They want some skills for industry so that they can keep their options open.

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2003
CommunicationsConsumerFeaturesindustrialindustry analystslower salaries and fewer perksmarket analystsnew economystiff competition

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