22 March 2013

Optics and photonics defense professionals: Opportunity is yours

Kerstin Bailey, the marketing analytics manager for SPIE, has a word of encouragement for optics and photonics professionals working in the defense sector, to counter recent nerve-wracking news about the U.S. budget sequester.

"From the information I see about our community, optics and photonics defense professionals should not be overly worried about long-term employability," she said.

"While these professionals work in defense, we have seen that their interests and backgrounds cover many application areas. Their activity with SPIE indicates a broad knowledge base that is very transferrable," Bailey said.

Examples of technology transfer from the defense sector to commercial use are abundant. Adaptive optics for telescopes are used in opthalmology. Sensing technologies used by the military can ensure food safety and clean water for the general public. The technology that runs the Internet, GPS systems, and microwave ovens has its roots in defense research.

"Couple this knowledge with engineering and design know-how and you have a very marketable employee who is highly sought after in other sectors," Bailey notes.

If you are in an optics and photonics sector that’s experiencing some shakiness, you certainly shouldn’t feel stuck.

According to the SPIE 2012 Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report, employees at military/defense organizations had the highest median compensation at $100,000 per year. Note that people at for-profit companies and self-employed consultants also reported very comparable median wages ($97K and $95K respectively).

Job activity on the SPIE Career Center has shown only a slight weakening of the photonics job market. "In other words," Bailey said, "good jobs are definitely still out there, if you’re interested."

A panel of judges hears a pitch from an aspiring entrepreneur
during the 2013 SPIE Startup Challenge, one opportunity for
new photonics products to win backing. (Photo: Joey Cobbs).
Looking back to the defense spending dip in the early 1990s, SPIE saw a rise of new optics and photonics startup companies. Some were started by entrepreneurs who designed new products in their garages. Others were started by teams funded by venture capital.

Mid-decade, growth in the biomedical optics, optoelectronics, MOEMS-MEMS, and laser technologies represented at Photonics West began a boom which has yet to slow down.

Over time, defense sector spending swung the other way and once again needed more optics and photonics professionals. After all, how many systems can provide efficient, targeted, cost-effective defense without the use of any optics or photonics components?

"Now, I know not everyone is going to jump right into the SPIE Startup Challenge with a fresh idea for a new product," Bailey said. "But if the defense-budget woes are giving you career angst, I encourage you to take a step back and think through your options. Because wherever you go in optics and photonics, opportunities are out there."

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