In the blood

I received an e-mail today from someone who had read last month’s editorial. The correspondent said that my “this year in review” wrap-up seemed to paint the optical communications industry in a fairly positive light. With this in mind, the reader-who says he’s spent nearly 20 years in the sales and management end of the optical communications business, the last few on the fringes-was wondering what I thought this year would bring in the way of employment prospects.

A few years ago-perhaps even a few months ago-such a query might elicit a slow shake of the head or, if you were of a more jaded bent, maybe even a snicker. But with the market appearing to recover to the point where many companies can envision a return to profitability sometime this year (if they haven’t achieved that goal already), now is a good time to take stock of what it means to be employed at a company with roots in optical communications.

Certainly the reputation of the market, and by extension the companies and people involved in it, needs some rehabilitation, if for no other reason than that it’s been viewed as the economic equivalent of the dust bowl for most of this century. Companies closed, consolidated, and downsized, leaving tens of thousands of engineers, salespeople, production specialists, and others unemployed worldwide. The fact that this black period followed years of hype and prosperity in some ways made things even worse. The industry and the people within it were perceived as failures in many quarters. Most of the people who have labored under this perception for the last 5 years didn’t put together the business plans that attracted all that VC money. They didn’t spend it either, except through the course of attempting to complete the task they were hired to accomplish. And then when the money ran out, out they went themselves. You can review the resultant finger-pointing on blogs and bulletin boards across the Internet.

If by chance you were still employed at an optical communications company after the fallout, some viewed you much like a plague survivor; you were in some ways to be congratulated for remaining on your feet, but there was a suspicion that your good employment health might be only temporary. Many who had lost their jobs found few opportunities at surviving companies. The employee ranks of high-tech companies in the sensing, medical, industrial, and related markets are now dotted with people who got their start in optical communications but couldn’t find a way to stay in the game.

You probably have friends who fit this description. Maybe you fit this description.

And so now what? If the market is coming back, will the jobs-or, if you’re currently employed at a company that operates within optical communications, the job security-return as well?

The good news is that the market has returned to stability and a reasonable growth rate. We’re not about to repeat the boom years, so we’re looking at an industry that will expand slowly as company management accepts the idea that it might be wise to actually raise headcount in certain parts of their organizations. It seems that it might be time for some of the more penurious captains of industry to let go of the idea that having each of your employees perform the work of two or three people isn’t the natural order of things. There’s a cartoon I saw recently that illustrated this concept. The officers of a ship are looking down at the single oarsman manning a nearly empty galley. “I don’t understand it,” says one officer. “We’ve streamlined the crew-why aren’t we moving faster?”

The bad news is that more stable company valuations will create a more fertile environment for mergers and acquisitions. As companies consolidate, so does the number of available jobs.

I expect 2007 to be a year in which the long-awaited consolidation within the components and subsystems space begins in earnest. So it still might take a bit more luck than skill to land a job in optical communications over the next 12 months. That said, if you’re looking for someone with nearly two decades of sales/management experience, drop me a line-I think I might have someone for you.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director & Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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