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Investing for the Future

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The past few months have shown huge volatility in the international financial system, with many indicators pointing toward economic slowdown. The natural tendency for most companies and individuals is to hunker down, cut back on expenses, and to wait for better times. At times like these, investment for the future usually takes a back seat to other concerns because it's easier to worry simply about the here and now.

Even in tough times, though, most people will find money for an investment if the opportunity looks like a sure thing, especially if the returns are potentially large. With this in mind, I would like to bring to your attention a relatively low-cost investment that invariably leads to a set of assets that can provide returns that could last for decades. I'm talking about investing in people and, in particular, students, who are in the process of plotting their career trajectories.

The strength of any endeavor ultimately depends on the quality of its people, and the electronic-display industry is no exception. All companies rely on smart, dedicated, innovative people to imagine, develop, manufacture, and sell the products that delight customers and provide profits back to the company. Whether it is the company leadership, the scientific and engineering development staff, marketing team, or manufacturing group, at one point all of these people were students.

Students have a lot of uncertainty in their lives, particularly regarding career choices. What makes a student choose one particular field over another? What makes a student in a particular field choose one company over another? The reasons are many and often subtle, but there is one element that is certain: For a student to choose a particular field, or a particular company, they must have some exposure to that field or company. This exposure is particularly important for the electronic-display industry, as many universities do not have specific departments or programs that will naturally provide training or exposure to our industry. Allow me to offer two ways for companies to provide this exposure.

Internships are a great way for a company to engage students as they are forming their career choices. Often done in conjunction with a local university's career center, the student is given work that is useful for the company and is appropriate to the student's level of training. This is great for the students, who get a glimpse what it is like to work in the "real world" and, in particular, begin to identify the traits, habits, and skills that enable success. Internships in different cities and/or countries give students valuable life experience that they likely will never forget. They also get to earn a bit of money, which is nearly always in short supply at that age.

For the company, it can be great as well. Interns work cheaply compared to regular salaried staff. They are motivated to work hard in order to impress their hosts. While the students may lack experience (and perhaps some judgment), sufficient oversight from a regular employee can ensure that useful work is completed. Interns develop tremendous gratitude for the sponsoring companies and spread that word to their friends. Most importantly, though, the company gets to identify some highly talented workers that they can engage again once they graduate.

There are other ways that our industry can support students as well. Think back to the first technical conference that you attended, early in your career. Rubbing shoulders with experienced scientists and engineers, getting to present a paper or explain a poster presentation, and just learning about the state of the art can leave quite an impression on people early in their careers. While some university faculty may have limited capability to send their students to conferences, it is rarely possible to enable all deserving students to participate.

SID tries to do its part. For many years, the Society has provided numerous travel grants for deserving students to attend SID-affiliated conferences. Companies with a major stake in the electronic-display industry may consider sponsoring students to attend conferences as well. While there may not be as much direct contact as with an internship, the student (and their associated faculty member) will be highly grateful for companies that can provide this sort of support.

In times of tight money, it's expedient to cut as many expenses as possible. Companies should remember, though, that their ability to withstand hard times and excel during good times is directly related to the quality of their people. Is your workforce as talented and innovative as it could be? If not, it might be worth spending a bit of money and time on students now to reap those great rewards down the line.

Paul Drzaic
President
Society for Information Display