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Brexit and Trump to hinder recruitment, executives suggest

Jessica Rowbury reports from a Photonics West panel, where possible implications of Brexit and the Trump administration were debated

Political uncertainty brought about by Brexit and the new Trump administration could make it harder to hire and move skilled people, executives have said during a panel session held at SPIE Photonics West.

The group discussion, which took place on 1 February in San Francisco, included senior members of German firms Trumpf and Schott, US companies II-VI Photonics and nLight, and Denmark-based NKT Photonics.

During the session, Basil Garabet, CEO of the Photonics Group at NKT, said that the fibre laser manufacturer is struggling to find talented people across its main sites in the UK (Southampton), Germany (Cologne) and Denmark (Copenhagen). ‘We’re recruiting in all of those places but… it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the right people at the right time. Even trying to find software engineers in Germany for instance is a tough one that I didn’t think would be,’ he said. ‘When additional challenges are thrown your way [politically]… it doesn’t make things easier.’

Berthold Schmidt, managing director at Trumpf, said that tighter immigration controls will affect both the running of its business and also the acquisition of talented people. ‘We have people in New Jersey allocated on our manufacturing line… We depend on having an open door in terms of borders to direct the people that we require for our operation in the US,’ he noted. ‘In terms of R&D, we have to open our doors to talented people and to attract a worldwide pool to our site in Princeton.’

The effects of Trump’s executive order banning visa holders whose country of origin is Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, or Yemen - currently suspended, but in effect at the time of Photonics West - was apparent at the photonics show, as conference speakers from Canadian and UK universities were refused entry into the country.

Schmidt commented on semiconductor laser development as being an international activity. Trumpf has joined forces with a technology hub in Berlin. ‘It was hard to find universities that were still driving semiconductor lasers research that could still be partnered with,’ he said. ‘Often they know how to make the smallest laser with fancy materials, but working on common topics like reliability, efficiency and things like that is often not resonating with them. To move them closer to industry is a task we accept and take on, which is why we have set up this development hub in Berlin to get closer to talented people.’

Scott Keeney, CEO and co-founder at fibre laser provider nLight, commented during the panel discussion that the photonics industry will likely see more consolidation in the next five to ten years.

Chuck Mattera, CEO at II-VI, agreed, remarking that the company had completed more than ten acquisitions in the last 10 years, and that acquisitions are an integral part of II-VI’s strategy. ‘We always acquired a healthy business that has R&D as an integral part. For us it’s an essential part of the future,’ he said.

Also highlighted during the panel discussion was the growing threat of cyber security to high-tech firms. Schmidt at Trumpf said that the laser giant is using higher levels of protection for its more valuable information. ‘At Trumpf we identified what we call the “crown jewels” and we found certain measures in order to protect these and have a separate system and firewalls in place to make sure the “core” of the company has a different security level – or at least the intent to have better protection – than the rest of the system.’

However, Keeney at nLight said that although IT protection is important for protecting a company’s information, it can create a false sense of security. He referred to a business trip where he visited two companies separately in South Korea. Although they were very strict on controls – no laptops or phones were allowed in the meetings – the second company he visited somehow knew about what was discussed in the meeting with the previous company.

‘It had nothing to do with IT; it had everything to do with people that were leaking out information,’ he remarked. ‘While I think cyber security is very important, the problems I’ve seen had nothing to do with an IT issue.’
Mattera at II-VI added that cyber security is an issue that needs to be addressed regularly and consistently by management teams.

‘We have a great sense of urgency and responsibility for all of those in addition to the information and data about our employees and the like,’ he said. ‘We’re focused on getting our arms around both the system that we use and a management review process so that we continue to understand the risk of threat.’

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