Thirst for the future

March 13, 2023
Jennifer Cable sits down with Laser Focus World to discuss the Thorlabs culture and efforts to build a skilled workforce.

To open the sit-down keynote at the Laser Focus World Executive Forum, Jennifer Cable, president of Thorlabs, discussed how her company has invested in building its base of skilled workersan issue that is near and dear to her heart (see video). “Im really proud of the programs weve established to directly address the need for training,” she says.

The company’s focus has been on addressing the technician shortage, starting with training programs at community colleges, which over the past decade has turned out a ton of qualified graduates in the optics technician space. It was identified as a national security challenge for the U.S. and having that technician workforce in the U.S. is going to become increasingly important. Thorlabs has since expanded its focus on a program for metal machining technicians.

Building and nurturing a culture for success

When Alex Cable founded Thorlabs in 1989, the idea was to serve the needs of the academic researcher in the photonics space. While working as a lab technician at Bell Labs, he was fabricating the components he needed to complete his job and realized there was a gap within the young but growing photonics market. “We were bootstrapped from the very beginning,” she says. “Focused on the customer with a real drive to make sure were understanding, intuiting, and meeting their needs. That was our cultural beginning.”

Thorlabs has expanded its portfolio over the yearsit now has 23,000 products, 90% of which are designed in-house, and a large percentage of those are manufactured in New Jersey or in the U.S. “That’s very, very important to who we are, with a focus on service,” she says. “What we havent always talked about as much is the employee-centric side of things that has made us successful over the years. And since were reaching this new stage in our growth, its been very important to us to keep the entrepreneurial spirit and drive, while also understanding were now a global company.”

Cable also discussed how the generational family component is a key part of its culture.

“Its a family business, but its not just the Cable family. We have other families where we have multiple generations, three or even four generations of folks, aunts and nieces or brothers and brother-in-laws,” she says. “That family environment is important to how we define ourselves and how we define our community.”

Having this family environment also means when new people join, it’s important to recognize the existing relationships can feel alienating. “When I think about an inclusive culture, which is one of my goals, I want to make sure that its clear that your success depends on your ability to work hard, to learn on the job, and to want to continue to develop your career,” she says.

The original Thorlabs catalog was a four-page Xerox pamphlet, explains Cable. Over time, Thorlabs’ customers have matured, moved into industry, and the research they did has now translated into commercial applications. “As our customers have matured, and the industry has matured, weve tried to and often successfully matured along with you,” she says. “Its still pretty close to 50/50, but now we have industrial customers making up a larger share of our businesses.”

As a result, Thorlabs has shifted some of its processes and priorities as it serves customer needs. “But really, we want to continue serving both. We see that theres a ton of opportunity out there and frankly, its still photonics and the individual people have remained the same. We believe that we can continue serving them well and with a high degree of service and quality.”

Encouraging the next generation

Initially, Cable was not excited about photonics. “I didnt think that I could find a career in this industry. I frankly didnt see myself reflected in this industry,” she says. However, over the years as she developed in her role doing corporate strategy in the healthcare field, she had such a passion for helping companies run themselves better, more efficiently. It led to a realization about how exciting and dynamic the photonics industry is.

“However, as an industry, we have a challenge ahead of us. We need to encourage young people, especially those who are underrepresented in our field today, to see that photonics is a worthwhile career path,” she says. “We are so hungry for a talented workforce, whether its on the technician side, the engineering side, scientist side, or even all of the enabling functions that make up large corporations. Regardless of how technical you are, believe that you are, there is a role for you in this industry. We have enough to offer young people to come into this industry. We just have to kind of connect the dots between the energy they feel when theyre young during the stem experiments to their career opportunities coming.”

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Market Leader/Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military

Peter Fretty began his role as the Market Leader, Laser & Military in June 2023; the group encompasses the Laser Focus World, Military & Aerospace Electronics, and Vision Systems Design brands. He also serves as Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military (effective spring 2023) and served as Editor in Chief of Laser Focus World since October 2021. Prior to that, he was Technology Editor for IndustryWeek for two years.

As a highly experienced journalist, he has regularly covered advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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