Optics and photonics jobs: what it needs, what it takes

The Photonics West Show Daily spoke with recruiters and students about the optics and photonics job market.

26 February 2018
Karen Thomas
Students seeking jobs in the optics and photonics industry are encouraged to broaden their horizons beyond niche academic disciplines: learning a foreign language is one way to stand out from the crowd. Photo: Adam Resnick/SPIE

The SPIE Photonics West Exhibition offers optics and photonics companies the opportunity to meet qualified engineers and technical talent. The Job Fair, held in conjunction with the exhibition, gives students and other job seekers a chance to discuss their skills and talents with leading companies.

SPIE spoke with companies looking to recruit at the Moscone this week, as well as students and professors, about finding and filling jobs in photonics. Companies told us what they are looking for in candidates, while students shared the experiences of their job hunts.

According to Alexis Vogt, Endowed Chair and associate professor of optics at Monroe Community College (MCC), the global optics, photonics, and imaging industry is growing faster than the overall economy. Coupled with industry reports suggesting that one-fifth of experienced technicians and engineers are approaching retirement, the need for skilled optics and photonics technicians is clear.

Vogt adds that in upstate New York, three-quarters of skilled optics technician job openings go unfilled annually, due to insufficient numbers of optics and photonics graduates. That shortage is not isolated to New York - or even the US. In a survey of 1700 small- and mid-sized German companies, about three quarters said the shortage of skilled workers impairs their innovation activities. Some German optics companies have contacted MCC to hire skilled optics technicians. "Our entire industry needs highly skilled optics and photonics technicians," said Vogt.

Universities and training programs are working hard to match skilled applicants with jobs, but there are issues to be worked out.

Nicholas Wong is a recent PhD graduate from the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton in the UK, and is actively looking for work. He says that in his experience, a PhD trains one tecnically, but offers limited preparation for tackling the job market.

"I have had to do a large degree of finding my own way and learning as I go when it comes to knowing the current state of where these relevant jobs are available, and how to approach the search for them," said Wong.

Mike McKee is associate director of Academic Support Services in the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida, and recognizes the difficulty seen by Wong. "While the job market is strong for photonics engineers, the problem has been trying to navigate to find those positions," he says. "Often the positions are not called out as "optics or photonics engineering" positions, making it difficult for students to search using those key terms."

One surprising resource McKee has pointed prospective students towards is the US Department of Labor website, which carries a large number of jobs forecast to be available in the optics and photonics industry over the next eight years.

He adds that several companies approached CREOL last year at Photonics West, asking them to refer engineering students to their organizations. To help get the word out, McKee and others created the "CREOL Undergraduate Blog," which posts job opportunities.

"Evaluating a company, a job, or a potential hire can be frustrating," says Linda Usher, president of Linda Usher Management Consultants and specialized recruiter for the optics industry. "Having criteria that is thought through and agreed upon by your team or your inner circle (depending on which side of the desk you're on) is key."

Over the years, Usher has found that many companies don't spend a lot of time preparing their people for the interview process itself. Candor is an incredibly disarming choice that can help set the tone of an interview, she says.

Usher once recommended an anxious job candidate simply tell an interviewer that she was a nervous wreck because she wasn't an experienced interviewee.

The response from the group interviewing the candidate was "Oh good, we have no idea how to interview either!" After sharing a laugh, there was a good information exchange in a more relaxed environment. No one in the room was expected to perform a task they were never trained for and discussing what they were trained for was able to take place.

"Start-up scrappy"
The consensus among exhibitors and recruiters is that candidates need life skills as well as technical skills. Job requirements are likely to include interpersonal skills relating to teamwork, organization, and flexibility. Employees who excel are those who are technically sound, can change gears quickly, adapt to a variety of situations, and understand how to work in a collaborative environment.

Nick Herringer, US Engineering Services Manager at Zemax, says his company looks for smart people who have a strong technical background in optics, physics, or a related field. But those people also need the social skills for building meaningful relationships in a collaborative work environment.

"Typically, a degree in an optics or physics discipline will provide candidates with the appropriate technical skillset, but that is only part of the equation," said Herringer. "We also need candidates to be able to communicate effectively with co-workers, be flexible with their work, and have the creativity to develop new solutions."

SPIE career center

In some cases, companies are simply looking for more experience than some recent graduates can offer. The human resources group at Quartus Engineering, who are looking for "optical and opto-mechanical engineers at all experience levels," notes that while many candidates have worked on very small projects, they are frequently looking for people with experience designing at a much larger scale.

Candidates often have a great deal of research experience, which is valuable, but Quartus would like candidates to have more real-world, application-related experience. "It is sometimes challenging to find candidates with the work experience in optical system development that meets our broad needs," they told us.

While this may sound negative, the group encourages optics and photonics students to apply, saying: "We have found that as technology progresses, optical systems are becoming more and more ubiquitous, with countless opportunities to be on the cutting edge of technological progress."

The lidar equipment company Luminar Technologies also looks for candidates with some experience. A job description for a Vehicle Integration Engineer not only asks for two to three years' experience, but also that the candidate be "start-up scrappy" - having the experience and drive to work with a developing technology.

"While we have seen some great talent, finding top professionals in the optical community is always competitive and requires active networking," says Jason Eichenholz, its co-founder and CTO. "Our ideal candidates have a combination of real-world and academic experience in optics and photonics."

Help yourselves
Nick Herringer encourages students to ensure their degree(s) do not trap them into a niche track. He believes students should broaden their horizons through activities such as computer science courses, foreign languages, or tutoring other students. Taking on subjects outside one's field of study requires learning to think in different ways, something helpful in the working world.

"Don't corner yourself into one way of thinking or approaching challenges," advises Herringer. "Your major or specialization will speak for itself. It is the other things you do and study in school that will separate you from your peers and help you be successful in the long run."

Eichenholz points out that a degree is more valuable if you know how to use it. "While you are getting an education, it is critical to do two things: obtain real-world work experience, and find a mentor," he says. "Get out there and get an internship or job in a space relevant to what you will be doing. Candidates with some work experience are always more attractive because we know they can hit the ground running."

Also useful is a mentor who is an expert in communication and navigating corporate waters. "Soak up as much knowledge from them as you possibly can," Eichenholz says. "Doing these two simple things will pay off in more ways than you can imagine, and immediately put you ahead of the pack."

Recruiters at SPIE Photonics West 2018
Among the big names actively recruiting in the Moscone this week are Oculus Research, Apple, Intel, and Trumpf, alongside a slew of startup companies working in cutting-edge fields. Photo: Adam Resnick/SPIE.

Barry Silverstein, who manages optics research at high-profile exhibitor Oculus, adds that job candidates need to be culturally and intellectually diverse individuals with the ability to use and enhance their skills into unforeseen challenges. The goal at Oculus is to invent, master, and commercialize AR and VR technologies. "That will require skills and science that doesn't exist today," says Silverstein. "Candidates need to be able to thrive in this uncertainty. Optics and photonics skills are fundamental to this goal."

Katelynn Bauer is a recent graduate of University of Rochester, and currently a research associate in the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the same institution. Bauer did not apply to any job without first talking to someone who worked at that company to gauge if that person enjoyed working there. She wanted to spendher working time with people who felt they did meaningful work. "This mostly came from a gut feeling," says Bauer, "but just listening to someone talk about their work can tell you a lot."

Bauer also suggests looking beyond the first couple of years at a potential job, and to consider if the company offers room to grow, or the opportunity to learn new things from experts in the field. Does the job align with an applicant's 10-year or 15-year goals? These questions can also help form some of the questions a candidate might ask during an interview.

Diversity and intervention
A growing concern among the optics and photonics community is addressing diversity in STEM. The SPIE Women in Optics program and the SPIE Diversity Committee regularly holds events for networking, discussion, and advancing the mission of diversity and inclusion in optics and photonics.

There are programs at high schools and universities that encourage women and minorities to be interested in science, but many educators, and even students, feel these programs may be starting too late. "Intervention should occur earlier," says Cathy Chen, a senior associate at Exponent, Inc. She notes several studies that show girls are discouraged from entering STEM fields long before they reach college.

When Chen was working on her PhD in electrical engineering at Columbia University, she worked with a bi-annual outreach program offering elementary and middle-school girls the opportunity to participate in science activities on campus. Chen says there was a "definite difference" in the two age groups, in terms of how much they were willing to be openly interested in science. By middle school, the disconnect from STEM subjects was already apparent.

When boys and girls are really young, says Alexis Vogt, they can have an equal interest in science. "At age five, there's no notion a girl can't do what a boy can do," she says. But somehow, even by elementary school, girls are getting the message that they either can't or shouldn't be involved in STEM.

As a female in a male-dominated field, Vogt often found herself as the only woman in a class, meeting, or presentation. She credits her parents as teaching her to view that situation as an opportunity, rather than challenge. Not all girls or kids from under-represented communities get such encouragement.

Last year, MCC received $550,000 through a National Science Foundation award called Optics & Photonics Technology Innovation!, or "OPT IN!" for short. Over the next three years, the program will provide education and training for area high school and college students, increase internship opportunities, and expand outreach efforts. As part of this program, Vogt is putting together an Optics Road Show to present science to the general public and targeted audiences including low-income and underrepresented racial and ethnic populations, veterans, and women.

"As we move forward and grow our optics program to meet the increasing regional and national optics workforce demands, I want more families to encourage their children to pursue interests in science and physics, especially their daughters," says Vogt.

And she adds that while most of the attendees at Photonics West will be white males - because they are the ones who mainly represent the optics and photonics community today - "it doesn't have to stay that way."

Karen Thomas is a senior editor at SPIE. A version of this article appeared in the Photonics West Show Daily in February.

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