Memphis medical device makers create regional council to foster workforce development

Facing what they say is a shortage of skilled workers, 17 area medical device companies have banded together to form a regional council that will work with local technical schools, high schools, colleges, universities and community colleges to create a stronger pipeline of employees for the medical device industry.

Industry representatives launched the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council.

The Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce disclosed the group’s  formation on Monday.

The not-for-profit group also will review legislation and government policies that would negatively affect the industry.

While Memphis’ “favorable tax structure” and “relatively low cost of living” are already strong advantages for supporting the medical device industry, a unified industry voice, beneficial government policy and a skilled workforce will remove any obstacles to the city becoming “the world’s capital for medical devices,” Gene Baker, vice president of operations for Smith & Nephew PLC said in a statement released by the Bartlett chamber.

Baker, chairman of the new group, was not available for an interview on Monday.

Jodie Gilmore, president of Onyx Medical Corp., was selected as chairman-elect of the new group. Gilmore also could not be reached Monday.

Over the last decade, Shelby County has emerged as the nation’s second-largest medical device corridor behind Warsaw, Indiana, chamber officials said.

In the Memphis area, the industry employs about 5,000 workers at 56 companies including local suppliers, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The launch of the local group comes as device makers face a number of headwinds in the domestic market. These include increased pricing pressure and cost-cutting measures as hospitals comply with the Affordable Care Act and fewer surgeries as patients delay nonemergent procedures. Sluggish medical device sales in the U.S. and Europe have pushed the industry to look to emerging markets like China, India, Brazil, Russia and other emerging markets for growth.

Hiring has a been a challenge, said Trey Tucker, a plant manager at Surface Dynamics LLC. The 17-employee Bartlett firm makes porous titanium coating that is applied to implants used in spinal, hip, knee, foot and ankle surgeries to aid bone growth.

“We have gotten around it with our internal training,” Tucker said. “We need someone who can read calipers and we also need someone with a machine background and quality inspection training.”

While most medical devices are made by computerized equipment, the industry is still very labor intensive, said John Threadgill president of the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Someone still has to operate the machines and they need highly skilled workers to operate those machines,” he said. “There is no local concerted effort to streamline the training, nor is there a pipeline from high schools. Many of them have moved away from technical training in the last 20 years.”

Threadgill said the group plans to work with area high schools, universities, community colleges and technical schools to develop a training framework.

The charter members of the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council are: Ariste Medical Inc., Big River Engineering, Bioventus LLC, Enteroptyx Inc., Innovision Inc., MB Innovations Inc., Medtronic, MicroPort Orthopedics, Gyrus ACMI Inc., Onyx Medical Corp., Restore Medical Solutions LLC, Smith & Nephew Plc, Surface Dynamics LLC, Titan Medical LLC, Wright Medical Technology Inc., Y&W Technologies and Zimmer Spine.

“Ultimately, coming together for the benefit of the whole industry — this is an important catalyst for the Memphis metropolitan area and beyond,” Gilmore said.