The human component shortage

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It's difficult to say what's in shorter supply these days-optical components, manufacturing capacity, or good personnel. We've treated the first two topics in past issues of Lightwave-in fact, the current state of automated manufacturing served as the topic of our special "Editorial Extra" theme just last month (see Lightwave, October 2000, page 109.) But little will happen on either front without the leadership provided by the right people-and boy, don't we all wish we could find them.

Everybody is looking for bodies in the optical communications space-even magazines. (If you can write, please talk to me; if you can sell ads, please talk to my publisher.) The old management saw of "You're always recruiting" has gone from being a nice homily to a fact of life. As a result, open houses are at an all-time high, trade shows are beginning to resemble singles bars, and headhunters have never had it so good.

Thus, the frenzy that once gripped the stock market as investors looked for the next Cisco has reappeared in the human resources field as companies look for the next engineering innovator-or just someone who can competently put together an optical amplifier. Just as venture capitalists seed companies that seem to have little more than a business plan and a desk, companies are hiring kids out of schools before they've earned their degrees.

Hiring has become an industry with a rather broadminded morality. For example, I heard an ad for a Website on the radio the other day that appeared to be taking the "stool pigeon" approach to personnel: "Turn in your buddy who might be qualified for one of our jobs and we'll pay you $5,000."

Of course, because of this new "anything goes" morality, keeping people is just as difficult as finding them. Poaching by one's competitors, including employees who have been on board for less than a month, is common practice these days, so even if you've filled a slot, you can't be sure that slot will stay occupied for longer than it takes for the word to get out that you've made a hire. And as your new employees tell their new coworkers about the bonuses and stock options they received to join the staff, you have a further set of problems with your existing workforce.

In an environment where recruitment pressures have sent salaries and other perks skyrocketing, it's not uncommon for someone to get a huge raise to jump to a new company-only to find that the next person onboard got an even better deal. If your salary-adjustment program doesn't keep pace with going market rates, your employees will quickly discover that the only way to avoid feeling like a chump is to switch companies.

Naturally, company loyalty goes right out the window in these scenarios. Employees who sign up merely for the high salaries or stock options are the first rats off the ship when things get tough, as could happen at just about any startup out there.

Of course, two decades of industry giants "right-sizing" their way into their stockholders' hearts (and sometimes earning fat bonuses) by jettisoning employees has only fed this "every man for himself" mindset. So there's plenty of blame here to go around.

But faced with a kingdom of empty cubicles, the CEO of an emerging company doesn't have much interest in such sociological debating points. For these people, the ecology of today's recruitment world resembles something from one of the "Mad Max" movies. It's barren, hot, and there's little use for the rule of law. A big gun-a well-recognized technological leader, deep pockets, or some other differentiator-would appear to be essential for survival.

But how do you develop the big gun without the right people? The answer will determine the future path of optical technology.

Like the resources of some dystopian movie world, intellectual capital threatens to become scarce. New resources must be found and existing resources must be husbanded or the optical communications industry will find itself a victim of its own success.

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

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