Analysis Physics World  June 2017

Lenses, lasers and leverage

Optics and photonics clusters have plenty to offer for scientists hoping to advance their careers. Alaina G Levine shares her advice on how to connect with them and make the best of the services and opportunities they provide

Making connections Engaging with optics and photonics clusters can be a good way to identify job opportunities within a particular geographic area. (iStock/Matjac Slanic)

If you’re in Europe and you want a job in optics or photonics, you should probably attend an event where you can meet Carlos Lee. As director-general of the Brussels-based European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), Lee’s job is to ensure that the continent’s photonics industry continues to grow, advance and innovate. Ever mindful for new ways to help the 300+ companies and organizations in EPIC achieve this, Lee is a one-man networking machine, always happy to chat with optical scientists and photonics engineers about career opportunities. But he isn’t just interested in making conversation. He also carries business cards with the words “You’re great!” printed on them, and if he gives you one, it’s because he thinks you could provide a benefit to his members – in the form of an employment arrangement. He’s willing to help make it happen, too. “I guarantee that I can give people 10 minutes with the head of one of our member companies,” Lee says. “Even if there is not a match, they are open to ideas and learning about new talent.”

The power of partnerships

Behold the power of optics clusters. In general, the term “cluster” refers to a critical mass of companies operating in the same industry and geographic region; classic examples include computing firms in Silicon Valley or banks in London. But for some industries – optics and photonics included – the word also implies a more formal partnership. When enough like-minded organizations exist in the same region, their representatives often launch their own professional association, or trade group, for companies, institutions and individuals in the industry. And within the optics and photonics industries, this happy confluence of interests has repeated itself all over the world, with dozens of clusters in countries ranging from Singapore to Sweden, and at least eight in Germany alone.

The goal of these clusters is to leverage a large existing industry presence to further advance the sector within a geographic area. As membership organizations, clusters also work to boost the size of their member companies, attract new ones and encourage start-ups. Doing these things requires a large and highly educated talent pool of scientists and engineers – people who typically command higher salaries and contribute significantly to the tax base in the region. This means that clusters (and the local government bodies they work with) are keen on attracting and retaining talent to serve their member companies. So if you’re an optical scientist or photonics engineer looking for a job, you should not only be aware of what optics and photonics clusters exist and where, but also know how to interact with them.

Get in touch

David Méchin directs Photonics Bretagne, an innovation hub that brings together approximately 100 photonics organizations, mainly in Brittany, France. In his view, “collaboration and communication with clusters are very important” for individual job-seekers, and he encourages scientists to send him their CVs, discuss their experience, and explain why they want to come to his corner of the world. “I welcome these e-mails. If they are a very good talent, I will try to attract them to my cluster in many ways,” he says. But since clusters are driven by geography, Méchin adds that when you approach cluster representatives, it is also relevant to discuss why you want to come to their specific area. “What are your ties here? How do you know us? What can you bring to the regional ecosystem?” he says.

It’s also crucial to let the cluster leaders know exactly what you want to do once you arrive in their part of the world. “It is good for [candidates] to have a clear understanding in their mind of what opportunity they are looking for, as the more precise they are, the easier it is for me to make the connection,” says Steven G Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, a state-wide technology trade association that includes a committee called “Optics Valley” (not to be confused with optics valleys in France and China). Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Lee notes that having a clear understanding of the individual companies in a cluster is helpful, too. “Spend the time on what the company is trying to achieve,” he advises. “You won’t always find info on the website. The only way is to get out and talk to people. They might know a company that has a strategic plan for going into an area that you have experience in.”

For those who feel shy about approaching clusters or individual companies “cold”, without any previous contacts or connections, Thomas Battley offers some words of reassurance. Battley is the executive director of the Rochester, New York-based cluster New York Photonics/RRPC, and he says that in his experience the optics industry is especially open to networking with (and for) early-career scientists. “It’s not an industry of unapproachable elites. It’s a down-to-earth industry where people like to know each other,” he says. “There is no reason you can’t develop a personal relationship with someone who owns a $500m company.” According to SPIE, the international society of optics and photonics, there are around 3200 optics and photonics corporations worldwide, representing some 863,000 employees and annual revenues of approximately $182bn. And yet, Battley adds, “everyone knows each other…[so] through those connections a young person can tap into a broad network of individuals in the industry. At Photonics West, for instance, I have introduced students to CEOs of the companies they are interested in.”

Inside information

This kind of network knowledge doesn’t happen by accident, of course. Optics clusters regularly hold networking events, promote job boards, and offer professional development workshops and training. Some of them also support entrepreneurial activities directly. For example, New York Photonics is partnering with a regional start-up incubator on a “photonics venture challenge” that will provide millions of dollars in early-stage funding for photonics endeavours. “It’s a little like the Wild West,” says Battley. “There is a lot of opportunity to start companies.”

More start-ups means more potential career openings – but only if you know how to read between the lines and are willing to talk to people directly, Lee says. Companies in the optics and photonics industry – including early-stage start-ups operating in so-called “stealth mode” before their products are ready for launch– are often looking for specific profiles of candidates. Even if there is not a job opening, they may be willing to hire someone who meets their needs in an area they plan to move into. Unfortunately, Lee adds, “There is not an established path for finding these jobs. Part of the problem is that this industry is very secretive, so companies are not going to list what they want to work on in the future on the website.”

Clusters are key

Martin Valente, an optical engineer and president of Arizona Optical Systems (AOS), suggests that clusters can be key to landing these “hidden” jobs. “It’s a very efficient use of time to engage these clusters,” he says, adding that spending one hour a month at a cluster-sponsored event could alert you to opportunities that would take years to find on your own. “You get introduced to prospective employers and customers if you are hanging out your shingle to do some work. It’s a win–win.” Valente notes that after his organization hosted a networking reception and tour, one of the event’s 150 attendees – an up-and-coming Master’s student from the nearby University of Arizona – received an employment offer from AOS as a direct result of meeting people at the event.

For those who can’t attend events in person, launching a career search by analysing the online presence of the cluster and its membership is also a good way to begin. Once you’ve learned as much about the companies in the cluster as you can, and found the ones that appeal to you, Battley’s advice is “Contact the president or the CEO at 7.30 or 8.00 a.m. and let them know you are interested in their company and technology. Don’t call the HR [human resources] people.”

No matter how you engage, though, you should know that the doors to the sector are open. “There is world-wide shortage of talent,” Battley says. “A young person who embarks on a career in this industry is in demand all over the world and is limited only by their own ambitions.” Adds Valente: “We are there to help. You are not putting us out by contacting us – you are welcome to contact the clusters. We want you to come here and succeed because when you succeed, it brings everyone up with you.”