Shelby County medical device manufacturers are known for their innovation. But it took about three years of meetings before officially forming the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council this July.
“The industry was not used to coming together and sitting down,” said Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce president John Threadgill. “They’re competitors. And to get competitors in the same room to talk about their issues, there’s some reluctance. But the fact is, they’re all having the same issues. The cat’s out of the bag.”
In the fall of 2011, the Bartlett Chamber conducted a study to determine the challenges facing the medical device industry (Bartlett has about 10 medical device companies). The study showed that the medical device companies in Shelby County shared two chief concerns: overregulation and the lack of qualified workers in the local marketplace and a standard training and recruitment program to produce those workers.
“We’ve known for some time that we all face skill gaps with incoming workers,” said Gene Baker, vice president of operations with Smith & Nephew and chairman of the nine-member board of directors that will oversee the new council. “That’s one of the reasons we formed the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council (GMMDC).
“A fully available and developed workforce reduces expensive learning curves and reduces quality errors, which ultimately make all of the companies on this team become more competitive,” Baker said.
Currently, 17 medical device companies are represented on the GMMDC. More than 40 life science companies operate in the area.
“Many of us know one another,” said Ben Hutson, vice president of manufacturing at MicroPort Orthopedics. “The key here is everyone recognizes all we’ve been doing is taking resources and employees from one place to another as opposed to building a stronger workforce and deeper bench for everybody.”
Hutson agrees that companies are going to be appropriately cautious about sharing information, but added, “We’re certainly not going to talk about competitive information or what we’re doing in the marketplace.”
However Jodie Gilmore, who is president of Onyx Medical Corp. and president-elect of the GMMDC, is open in discussing the impact of the demand for skilled workers – engineers and machinists – being greater than the supply.
“Frankly, it’s limiting Onyx’s ability to grow and serve our end customers,” Gilmore said.
“We’ve had limited success over the last year as we’ve worked to fill 100 available jobs in manufacturing,” Baker added. “We’ve had to recruit from outside the area, which we would rather not do.”
To that end, the council is trying to work with local educators. As Threadgill said, “A Medtronic wants to see good mechanical engineers coming out of the University of Memphis and other schools.”
The GMMDC, which is an incorporated, not-for-profit association, has the support of local politicians, Threadgill said, and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald met with the new council as its formation became official. McDonald stressed the STEM initiative in the schools – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“It’s important to get to them early,” Hutson said.
But there is another kind of education that will be required, too: one that says good jobs in this field can be obtained with less than a four-year degree, provided a worker gets the right training. In 2008, the U.S. average annual wage for the medical devices and equipment industry was $63,606.
“There are people on some of these machines making more than $100,000 a year,” Threadgill said.
“I don’t know if there’s a stigma (about having less than a four-year degree),” Hutson said, “but we’re talking about highly paid skilled machinists doing quite well after a two-year degree.”
Threadgill said the various companies have discussed the long-term possibility of coming to together to develop an industry-specific training center. For now, Gilmore said, the companies are in agreement that they need to “leverage the existing infrastructure wherever possible.”
Baker says the GMMDC will help local schools, including community colleges and technical institutes, develop better curriculums for industry positions.