Top technical roles hard to come by in photonics careers

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Jessica Rowbury reports from a panel session at Photonics West asking what makes a great place to work in the field of optics and photonics

The challenge for engineers and scientists wanting to advance their career but remain in a technical role, was a recurring theme of a panel session discussing what makes a good workplace within the optics and photonics industry.

The round table, titled 'Great workplaces in optics and photonics', was held on 17 February during the Photonics West trade fair in San Francisco, USA.

SPIE's 2016 Optics and Photonics Salary Report acted as a base for the conversation. The annual survey provides data on the employment and compensation patterns across regions and disciplines, and is the largest report of its kind within the global optics and photonics community.

Nearly 7,000 people across 105 countries took part in the survey, 37 per cent of which were from Europe and 30 per cent from the United States.

One of several aspects the survey looks into concerns job satisfaction and workplaces. It was found that lack of advancement opportunities was one of the workplace challenges most frequently faced by respondents.

During the roundtable discussion, the panellists pointed out that, because people are typically paid well within engineering disciplines, money becomes less of an issue and factors concerning career fulfilment become more crucial. 

The panel members pointed to a challenge that many engineers and scientists working within optics and photonics companies face: for technical staff, it is often hard to move up in a company without having to move into a managerial position.

‘At Fibertek, there are less than 80 people working in research and development. If I wanted to advance my hierarchy I would have to take on a management role,’ said Christina Willis, laser scientist at Fibertek. ‘There are many scientists in my company that end up taking on more and more managerial responsibilities.

'I think for a lot of companies... you will have to end up taking more managerial responsibilities in order to progress,' Willis added.

The panellists said that often the movement from technical to managerial is a natural part of working for a growing company; this was indeed the case for panel member Aaron Weinroth: ‘I am mostly on the business and management side rather than technical,' noted Weinroth, who is vice president of technology commercialisation at Tornado Spectral Systems. 'It was something that happened naturally a few years ago. I was working for a small startup company.’

Although Weinroth said he enjoys his job role, it was also mentioned during the panel discussion that moving technical staff into management is sometimes not in the employee's, or the company’s, best interest. ‘I think this is something that a lot of companies face, big or small. Very often, as a company grows, many of the scientists and technical people have to take on more of a managerial role, and sometimes... they are not the best people to do that,’ said Nishant Mohan, director of product management and marketing, systems division, Wasatch Photonics.

'I see this conflict in my day-to-day life... where [a company] has really smart people who do not want to report to a manager, but do not want to take up managerial positions themselves because they want to continue with their [technical] development,' Mohan added.  

‘I think everyone will face this dilemma at some point in their careers; it's a very hard balance to make,' he continued. 'If people are not suited to management or do not want to manage then they should not be pushed into it... there should be proper platforms for these people to move up.'

Both Willis and Mohan expressed a desire to stay, at least on some level, within the technical side of the companies they're currently working for. 'I do not have the ambition to be just a manager. I am at the point of my career where I want to do more work in the lab to build up my technical skills,' Willis commented.

'I like to have one foot on each side,' Mohan commented. 'I have been on the technical/R&D side and have enjoyed it, but since moving into a more business and management role I was able to see different sides of the business. But I wouldn’t be happy doing 100 per cent marketing and business without any technical input.'

Some companies have started creating what is known as a 'technical ladder', a structure that allows scientists and engineers to move up and lead from the technical/research side of a company rather than the business side. Boeing is one such company that has created technical career paths through its Technical Fellowship Programme.

These types of technical lead positions are less common and therefore highly sought after. Before joining Wasatch Photonics, Mohan worked for a firm that had these types of career paths, and 'there was only one person in the history of the company who was able to reach this, so it was a prize position to be in,' he said.

'But, as companies realise how important it is to let technical people stay in the company and move up, we will see more of these positions come up,' Mohan added.

Although technical career pathways are currently hard to come by, Weinroth also stressed that progressing within a company doesn't necessarily have to mean 'technical or managerial'; it is often possible for engineers to craft their position according to their preferences. 'You can take on managerial responsibilities from the business side, there are ways you can make technical contributions on the business side. Just because you are not in the lab doesn’t mean you are not making technical contributions to your organisation,' Weinroth said.

'So, what aspects you enjoy in your job and what responsibilities you want to take on is not always [a] black and white... decision.'

Further information:

SPIE Photonics West