Job Hunter’s Heaven

The loneliest people at this week’s European Conference on Optical Communication (ECOC) in Munich were upstairs, through the small fire door, around the corner and down the hall. If you were to enter through the first door on your right, about two dozen heads would pop out from behind paper-plastered cubicle dividers and stare at you wistfully, as if you’d shone a searchlight into a woods full of deer.

Welcome to the world of photonics industry recruitment.

“Staffing is definitely an issue,” said Walter Hobbs, director of ACT Venture Capital. “We get a lot of technology companies coming to us and saying, ‘Yeah, we can do this, but we need 30 engineers’ and our first question is, ‘Well, where are you going to get them?’ In general, this is a big concern for our companies – how to build the team.”

Steven Storey, managing director of Equate Human Resources, which sponsored the ECO recruitment area, agreed. “There are thousands, ridiculous numbers, of vacancies across Europe, and there’s simply not the candidates to fill the positions,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed among recruitment representatives from several companies, which included large players like Alcatel, Siemens and Lucent – all of whom have stands plastered with job openings for engineers at locations around the world – as well as by representatives from venture-funded companies like England’s Southampton Photonics and Scotland’s Kymata.

Southampton, a manufacturer of DWDM (Dense Wave Division Multiplexing) products, which recently received a $55 million (€61.76 million) in seed funding, says that it needs to fill 200 high-tech positions in the next 18 months. Southampton intends to establish design, production and sales facilities in California, where it wants to hire an additional 250 staff by the end of 2002. The new jobs will consist of professional engineers and manufacturing personnel, as well as sales and marketing staff.

“We’re aggressively seeking employees,” said Southampton’s product marketing manager Adam Reeves, “and the way we can do it is that we offer a really good package, but we also have something else. We’re a young company, but we’re very well-funded, so working for us is less risky than it would be for less well-funded companies.”

Equate’s Storey, who also consults for companies by seeking trained technicians working in other technical fields with crossover potential, including medical imaging, lighting systems and even semiconductor fields, says that in attracting talent, high-tech companies in Europe are finding increased competition from US firms – which offer salaries that human resources people at the conference called “outrageous” – as well as finding a trend among European firms to look for talent across Europe and Asia rather than just locally.

Large salaries and employee stock option packages, so common in the US, are beginning to pop up in Europe as well, as top-flight engineers begin to realize that they are in the midst of a revolution, in which they ply a vital role, that some say further increases the challenge for the smaller companies to find and retain the talent they need.

But Brendan Hyland, CEO of Kymata, which makes DWDM opto-electronic devices for the telecoms industry, dismisses the idea that there’s no one to fill the jobs. This March, Kymata completed a third round of venture funding for $72 million (€80.85 million) from 3i, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Bowman Capital, ACT Venture Capital, CommVenture and Telesoft Partners.

“We’ve grown from 12 to 250 employees in the past 12 months, and our turnover rate has been effectively zero,” Hyland said, “and we didn’t do that with stock options alone. Yes, you have to treat people well and we do, but the thing that attracts and keeps people is to challenge their minds.”

Kymata, founded in England, relocated to central Scotland where, Hyland says, it found one of the richest pools of high-tech talent they could hope for: Within an hour and a half, they’re surrounded by five university research facilities, which produce 450 graduates and 60 to 70 PhDs per year.

And the region has a history of large-scale semiconductor fabrication, which meant that there was an ample supply of people already used to working in a clean-room environment.

Kymata, too, is looking to fill positions, in areas of optical packaging development, wave-guide device and sub-system design and failure analysis, as well as in non-technical fields including marketing and, of course, human resources.

Indeed, perhaps as important to these companies as engineers are salespeople. “This isn’t pots and pans these guys are selling,” said ACT’s Hobbs. “You need some pretty specific skills to go out and sell products of a sunrise industry. But fortunately with sales people, you can recruit them from the territory in which you want them to sell, as opposed to trying to get engineers to relocate themselves and their families to be near your headquarters.”

“This is a problem in the economy in general and in high-tech, high-growth industries in particular,” said an analyst at Merrill Lynch, “and part of it is the issue of huge compensation packages and part of it is keeping the people interested.”

While Kymata’s Hyland points to several universities cranking out 450 graduates a year, that number is bound to increase tremendously as students push to learn skills required to get them into the ground floor of such a fast-growing industry. This will, in turn, eventually lead to a glut.

“It’s nothing radically different in photonics,” said the Merrill analyst, “Last year we had thousands of programmers running around doing Y2K work – need a programmer? There are thousands of them available right now waiting for work in e-commerce. And in four years, you’ll have 25,000+ highly trained and qualified photonics engineers sitting around doing nothing.”