Demand for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists is increasing by 3 to 4% per year but the supply of graduates cannot meet demand. Is the situation very different for the photonics industry? In an EPIC survey published in April 2013, the growth forecast in terms of employment over the next 3 years ranged from 40% to 9% (note that the rate of job creation is inversely proportional to the size of the company). Will all companies be able to meet the needs of this high rate of employment growth?
Ultimately we need to grow the talent pool and encourage young people to be interested in technology, not as technology users, but as technology developers.
The fact that most companies in photonics, though not all, use English as the working language certainly helps for mobility. Therefore, short-term solutions to compensate an employment gap include attracting people from countries with high unemployment such as Spain or Greece, or offering attractive salary packages to attract people from outside Europe. Medium-term solutions include re-skilling of the existing labour market. But ultimately we need to grow the talent pool and encourage young people to be interested in technology, not as technology users, but as technology developers. We need exciting educational aids/gaming techniques to motivate young people, and the role of parents and teachers in influencing young people’s future careers is evident. Hence the importance of promoting photonics to the general public with actions such as Day of Photonics and the International Year of Light.
Demand for educational tools
Industry-driven initiatives such as EPIC Adopt A Classroom contribute to ensuring the availability of a large pool of enthusiastic talent eager to contribute to the development of the photonics industry. Hundreds of teachers are asking for the EPIC laser kit; does it mean they don’t have all the tools they wish for motivating their students? Companies are therefore asked to sponsor additional kits for 195 EUR so that we can meet the demand gap.
Energy, collaboration skills, leadership, the drive to find solutions, time and project management skills, are all high on the recruiters’ hiring criteria list.
The photonics industry, composed of start-ups, SMEs, and large companies, has a need for both generalists and people with very specific expert knowledge, with competences ranging from high technical expertise to operators. Sometimes you see people coming out of school as generalist, and become a specialist by working on the job. But technical or business skills alone do not seem to be sufficient. Energy, collaboration skills, leadership, the drive to find solutions, time and project management skills, are all high on the recruiters’ hiring criteria list. Of utmost importance is turning research into innovation, understanding customer needs, commercialize new products and exploiting new potential markets. For start-ups, founders with both the technology and business skills are rare. If you don’t have both, hire someone complementary.
Solving real-world problems
To ensure a match between young graduates and company needs, to ensure a shift from solving scientific questions to solving problems, both worlds need to come closer together to increase interaction between industry and academia. Some professors such as those at Univesity College London (UCL) take on consulting roles with companies, which allows them to have an inside perspective on the corporate world. Universities that increase their revenue with industry contracts, professors that have a role in industry, students that make internships, executives that invest time going to schools, all of it contributes to develop a generation of technical and business graduates apt to meet the demanding needs of the European photonics companies.
Are public authorities aware of what needs to be done to ensure Europe has access to the skills needed to remain competitive in the long-term? What we are doing today, or have done in the past, that is working and not working? It is crucial to maintain a dialogue between public authorities and industry and EPIC and its members are committed to continue to be part of the discussion.
Written by Carlos Lee, Director General, EPIC - European Photonics Industry Consortium
Photo: EPIC member Benno Oderkerk, CEO of Avantes, contributes at European Commission workshop on skills and education for key enabling technologies. 10 June 2014, Brussels, Belgium