Scotland’s photonics sector: Addressing the skills shortage

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Stephen Taylor, CEO of Technology Scotland, home to the Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA), describes how the association’s activities are both raising awareness of and addressing the demand for skilled personnel in the rapidly growing Scottish photonics sector

For over 125 years, Scotland has been renowned as one of the world’s leading centres for optical engineering, and photonic innovation. From optical rangefinders and periscopes for submarines in the late 19th century driving strong optical engineering research at Universities, to the birth of an embryonic laser industry in the 1960’s, the world’s first single chip CMOS video camera in the 1980’s, and to the development of III-V compound semiconductors and LiFi technology in the 21st century, Scotland can be truly proud of its photonics heritage.

Photonics is also a major contributor to the Scottish economy. According to the most recent industry report (UK Photonics: The Hidden Economic Engine), the sector enjoys some £1 billion in turnover per annum and employs over 6,000 people in high value added jobs. More than 50 per cent of the sector’s output is exported, with the rest supporting important domestic sectors including aerospace and defence, oil and gas, renewable energy, manufacturing and communications.

The industry is backed up by universities with a research base of exceptional quality, an impressive array of translational assets, and world-leading institutions such as the first Fraunhofer centre in the UK (Fraunhofer CAP), the world’s first International Max Planck Partnership, and The UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

There is no doubt that the sector is booming, with almost all our member companies experiencing significant growth year on year. But this growth doesn’t come without challenges. Although skills shortages in the technology sector are already widely acknowledged, the rapid growth in Scotland’s photonics sector has led to concerns when it comes to attracting and retaining the right talent.

In 2017, a skills and recruitment survey by Technology Scotland revealed that the most in-demand vacancies are, unsurprisingly, technical roles, where the majority of participants stated they have a high requirement for a full range of expertise, from modern apprentices to CEO/director level. However, the need for university-level talent proved the priority, with 80 per cent of businesses having an urgent need for recent graduates. 

The voice of Scotland’s photonics community

Working with our members to understand their needs is critical. Analysing the data from our skills and recruitment survey it became clear that skills shortages were prevalent across the entire photonics sector, from large multi-national companies to SMEs and research organisations.

By concentrating on key factors such as promoting greater diversity in the work place, encouraging home-grown talent through Scotland’s world-class universities, and ensuring that there are enough university places in STEM subjects to meet local demand, we believe that we can help to increase the quantity and quality of the photonics workforce in Scotland.

While getting more women into STEM careers is one possible solution to the skills shortage, that can only help if the absolute number of STEM graduates in any given year increases, thus increasing the overall pool of graduates to meet the needs of the growing industry.

As the representative body for the photonics sector in Scotland, the SOA is using its voice to lobby government and university bodies to raise awareness of this skills shortage and examine ways it can be addressed.

In that regard, we have started discussions with Universities Scotland; the representative body of Scotland's 19 higher education institutions, to seek solutions to the lack of locally produced STEM graduates required.

Raising awareness and seeking solutions

In the meantime, the SOA has worked with its members to produce a range of events, workshops and working groups designed at addressing the skills gap, and the diversity challenge.

In early 2018, the SOA established an optical design working group, consisting of around 25 organisations in Scotland who have a strong optical design presence and requirements. Meeting once a quarter, the group is currently pursuing the goal of creating an optical design summer school, to both improve professional knowledge and increase the supply of optical designers.

With the SOA facilitating this, feedback is currently being sought on various aspects of the course, including subject matters, structure and cost. Once established, we hope that this will raise the awareness of Optical Design as a career choice for undergraduates, improve the quality of training on offer in Scotland, and encourage companies to further promote continuous professional development and upskilling as a means of attracting and retaining talent.

The SOA has also collaborated with other organisations and public bodies in Scotland to tackle challenges around the skills gap. In September 2018, we worked alongside a local recruitment company, a large multinational photonics company, and a worldwide coaching expert to host ‘Workforce of the Future’, an event aimed at CEOs and senior managers looking to recruit the best talent. The event provoked a lively debate around a highly interesting topic when it comes to retaining talent: how do Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials work together to create a workplace culture that satisfies everyone?

Later this month (October 2018), the SOA is also collaborating with the University of Glasgow and other local organisations including IoP Scotland, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), and Women’s Enterprise Scotland to host ‘Opening up Photonics’ (OUP), a workshop aimed at fostering innovation through increased diversity in the photonics sector.

Women have long been under-represented among those who choose to pursue an education in STEM subjects, and there is no doubt that this shortfall has contributed significantly to the ongoing shortage of talent. Through focused panel discussions, the OUP workshop will gather some of the photonics sector’s most influential decision makers to discuss how changes can be made to attract more women into the sector.

Photonics Scotland 2030: A vision for the future

Finally, one of our biggest upcoming events in 2019 is the SOA’s 25th Anniversary, to be held in conjunction with the EPIC AGM in Glasgow in April 2019. To coincide with this landmark occasion, the SOA will release a photonics strategy white paper entitled ‘Photonics Scotland 2030’, which will set forth a vision to more than treble the growth of the Scottish photonics sector by 2030.

Overall Scottish photonics is a terrific industry to be in. It's growing enormously, it's challenging, and as an enabling technology, it has a really exciting future.