Skills crisis leads to foreign hires

The skills shortage in the engineering field down under has forced the Australian arm of fibre-optics company Finisar to search overseas to recruit new talent for its research and development centre in Sydney.

The skills shortage in the engineering field down under has forced the Australian arm of fibre-optics company Finisar to search overseas to recruit new talent for its research and development centre in Sydney.


A Wavelength Selective Switch (Credit: Finisar)

Earlier this month, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally announced that Chinese networking company Huawei had reached an agreement with Finisar where the company would supply processors to the networking giant.

The Wavelength Selective Switch (WSS) Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexer (ROADM) developed by Finisar allows flexible network management flow. The use of liquid crystal on silicon technology allows the device to switch traffic from one optical link to another or across multiple wavelengths in the same network. The device was originally developed in Australia, with each unit taking around nine days to manufacture and assemble in the company's factory in Waterloo, Sydney.

Finisar chief executive officer Eitan Gertel said the company produced around 3000 WSS ROADMs in the last financial year and is expected to increase even more in the next few quarters. He said the increased demand for this product from suppliers like Huawei requires Finisar to increase its workforce from 240 to around 300 employees by the end of 2010.

"We're growing around 20 to 30 per cent per quarter," Gertel said, highlighting that problems with recruiting workers had caused a backlog for the company. "The growth looks very large but we're still trying to play catch up with our customers. We have to be able to grow faster to cope with that."

"It's a good problem to have but it's still a problem."

Globally, Finisar invests around $140 million annually in research and development, with the engineering development coming out of the Waterloo facility where the company was desperately trying to recruit.

"We have 90 engineers in Waterloo now, 25 of those have got PhDs," Finisar Australia's director of new business ventures Simon Poole said. "One of the issues we always have is finding the right people we need fast enough.

"We have about 40 to 50 opening positions now, so it's going crazy. It just reflects how the market as a whole is growing, Huawei is just an example for us. It's not just specific telecoms people we want. We need a range of people; we need software engineers, we need mechanical engineers, we need physicists and we need production engineering people," he said.

Poole said Finisar has had to look at recruiting qualified people from outside of Australia including from Europe and China.

"We've had to go much broader than Australia," he said. "We are having to bring people in from overseas where the skill sets aren't available."

Steve Frisken, Finisar Australia's chief technology officer, said it was not due to the lack of suitable training available in Australia, but instead due to the competitive employment market.

"The general training in Australia is good but the labour market is pretty tight at the moment. We have to fight to get people."

Although forced to look overseas, Poole said the company was still working with universities locally.

"We work very closely with Sydney University obviously because it's right next door but also Macquarie University and Newcastle University. We cast our net far and wide," he said. "We were over in Western Australia a couple of months ago trying to find people, so we will leave no stone unturned to find the right people."

Poole said it wasn't about just employing anybody. "It's can we find the right people to keep our product development going."

Until now, demand for Finisar's products had only been outside of Australia, but with the roll-out of the National Broadband Network, Poole said he expects Finisar to be supplying products through supplier arrangements with network companies such as Cisco, Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent.

"We're pretty comfortable that we'll be in the deployment somewhere."


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