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Does Buffalo have enough biotech workers to fill need?

The Buffalo Niagara region is placing a big bet on the life sciences, and businesses need thousands of skilled workers to fill the jobs.

It’s one thing for Boston, or Northern California, to meet that demand.

But this is Buffalo.

Can the biotech companies expanding or moving here find enough qualified workers from the region’s colleges and universities to fill their openings?

And can the workers earning those degrees, or expatriates who want to return home, find good-paying jobs here?

The companies and the graduates say they can, for the most part, and people in life sciences no longer have to leave town to find success.

“I’m just really impressed with the talent here that’s at UB, and I think I would always be able to find people to hire, ” said Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, a University at Buffalo professor and the founder of a startup company, For-Robin Inc., that is developing a cancer treatment.

Experienced industry veterans can be harder to find locally, said Anthony Johnson, president and CEO of Empire Genomics, but he said those workers can be persuaded to move here when they see the energy and growth in the downtown medical corridor.

“I think once you get people here, you find the right candidate that really likes the opportunity, the area actually does wind up selling itself, basically,” said Johnson, whose molecular diagnostics company develops personalized medicine for cancer and other conditions.

Diverse sector

Experts have different definitions for the biotech, or biosciences industries, and therefore agencies and trade groups use different figures when calculating the precise size and economic effect of the sector in the region.

The MedTech Association reports the industry employed 7,400 people as of 2012, the most recent year for which it collected data, at 234 companies in Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. The wide-ranging industry includes companies that make biomedical equipment and supplies, manufacture and prepare medical drugs, produce vaccines and conduct laboratory testing.

Jobs in the industry were up 4 percent in Western New York over the previous five years, while New York State saw a drop of 2 percent and the nation saw employment remain flat, according to the trade group for bioscience companies in New York.

Chris Beckage, vice president of the north region for the Superior Group employment agency, said jobs in the life sciences industry range from entry-level positions paying $15 per hour doing lab work to $100,000 per year for chemical engineers or data scientists, plus non-science jobs for people in human resources and marketing.

“There’s more talent locally now,” Beckage said. “So you have that entry-level talent. But the better part of it – this is good news for Buffalo – is we’re seeing more and more job seekers with those skill sets willing to relocate here. Now, people see Buffalo as a place with jobs and opportunity and, obviously, lower-cost living than say bigger metro markets.”

The Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, a regional economic development organization, reports Western New York had 6,634 jobs at 210 companies in the life sciences industry last year, up 1.4 percent over 2014, while the nation’s life sciences workforce rose 2.5 percent over the previous year. The 6,634 jobs, as a proportion of the region’s overall workforce, are 8 percent higher than life sciences jobs as a proportion of nation’s overall workforce.

They are 1 percent of the 634,610 workers in the region’s overall workforce, according to the state Labor Department.

The BNE’s report from Emsi, a company that produces economic impact studies, is based on results from 18 biomedical manufacturing and laboratory sectors. Workers in the industry locally earned an average of $81,097 last year, compared to $112,020 for life sciences workers nationwide. However, the average life sciences earnings were $37,277 more than the $43,820 average salary earned by all workers in the region in 2014, according to the Labor Department.

The personal finance website WalletHub ranks the Buffalo Niagara region 50th among the top 100 United States metro areas for workers trying to get jobs in a STEM – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – field.

Buffalo edged out Syracuse, at 51st; Rochester, at 55th; Albany, which tied for 59th; and New York City, which ranked 71st, among the state’s metro areas on the list.

The ranking is based on factors such as the percentage of the overall workforce employed in STEM-related fields, the projected growth in STEM fields, the median wages for STEM workers (adjusted for cost of living) and the quality of the region’s engineering universities.

The Buffalo area has 5.07 job openings for STEM graduates per 1,000 residents, ranking 73rd; 7.44 percent of the region’s workers are in STEM fields, which ranks 74th; and STEM workers earn an average $66,047 when adjusted for the region’s cost of living, which ranks 59th.

Recruiting easier

The life science businesses in the region are made up of a mix of long-standing companies with several hundred employees, such as Greatbatch and Baxter International, and small, startup companies with few employees that have grown out of research conducted at UB, Roswell Park Cancer Institute or another biomedical center.

Christopher Conway, senior vice president for discovery and development at Albany Molecular Research Inc., said the company has had little problem hiring for its global drug-discovery hub in Buffalo, including its top executive here, Rory Curtis, vice president of discovery, biology and pharmacology. AMRI moved into the seventh floor of the Conventus building on the medical campus last year after the state spent $50 million to build and equip the facility.

“We’re excited to have him on board,” Conway said of Curtis, who came over from Cubist Pharmaceuticals. “It says a lot about the type of talent that we’re going to be able to bring into the Buffalo area.”

AMRI has pledged to hire 75 workers in Buffalo. The company, which has 21 employees now, hopes to have nearly 40 workers at Conventus by December, and 55 by the end of 2017. They include biologists, chemists and some leadership positions, Conway said.

“There’s no shortage of high-potential candidates,” he said.

When William J. Maggio Jr. and a group of partners in 2010 took ownership control of IMMCO Diagnostics, a medical-testing company with operations in Amherst and on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Maggio said recruiting was difficult – especially trying to get people to move here from out of town.

“I no longer see that as a challenge,” said Maggio, who sold IMMCO to Trinity Biotech in 2013 but continues to run the company.

The colleges and universities – notably UB, D’Youville College and Daemen College – have embraced programs in the life sciences, he said.

“We’re finding that the pool of talented people in Western New York is growing,” he said, particularly for low to middle level positions.

Where life sciences startup companies run into problems filling positions is in the highest level jobs – such as CEO or chief financial officer, and in finding candidates who meet specific job requirements for lower-level technical positions, said Vic Nole, director of new business development for the organization that oversees the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“In the life sciences industry, you’ve got some very specific requirements, due to the regulatory challenges. And it’s not necessarily something that’s in the schools. So the kids come out of schools with solid scientific skills but they don’t know how to work in an FDA-regulated facility. They don’t know good manufacturing practices. They don’t know IOS standards,” said Nole, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the International Organization for Standardization. “And I think the frustration for the companies is they’ve got the basic intellectual skills, but then they’ve got to train them to be productive.”

Successful recruits

Empire Genomics looks locally first, but often recruits out of town for senior management and specialized scientific positions.

The 10-year-old molecular diagnostics company grew out of genomic research conducted by Norma Nowak at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Johnson, Empire Genomics’ chief executive officer, said the company hired its new chief operating officer, John J. Rushton, from the Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories in Spokane, Wash.

Sonya Stutts, the company’s director of marketing operations, came from Texas. Another Empire Genomics employee from Texas, Jason Liu, moved here in January 2015, from the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, because he saw the opportunity to grow at Empire Genomics.

The company has some issues when recruiting, Johnson said, with prospective employees who worry about where their spouses may work, or where they may go to work in Buffalo if this job doesn’t work out. But Empire Genomics has had more hits than misses in hiring.

“We have a great community here, right? It’s obviously rapidly growing. They come, they see the cranes, they see what’s taking place on the medical campus. They see what we’ve been doing in the national media, right, with our testing. And so we want to find the ideal candidates, but it’s a challenge,” Johnson said.

Staying local

Ryanne Tomblin, 22, graduated in May from UB with a degree in medical technology, also known as clinical laboratory science. The Ellicottville native wanted to stay in Buffalo after graduating. She got a job at Sisters of Charity Hospital as a clinical laboratory technologist, starting in September.

“I run the tests that the doctors order,” Tomblin said.

There were 17 students in her graduating class, and everyone got a job. A lot of the hospitals are hiring because baby boomers in the jobs now are retiring.

“It’s a field not a lot of people know about,” she said.

Anna Wojtanik, a 23-year-old UB biotechnology major from Eden, graduated in December 2014, and got a position as an immunology lab technician at ZeptoMetrix, where she makes kits used in research.

“It’s a learning experience for me,” Wojtanik said.

She said some of her classmates did leave the area for work after graduating, but she was glad to find a job with a local company about six months after graduating. “I didn’t think I’d have to move out of town,” Wojtanik said.

Hope for the future

Boosters of the life sciences industry have high hopes for Athenex, the Buffalo specialty cancer drug company, now that the state is investing $200 million in a drug-manufacturing plant for the company in Dunkirk.

Athenex promises to hire 450 workers for the plant, which is set to be finished in 2018 and fully come on line in 2023, and suppliers would hire another 450 workers in the area. Athenex also would hire 250 workers at its North American headquarters on the medical campus and suppliers would add 250 jobs there.

In Dunkirk, the company plans to work with workforce development officials and with the community colleges and universities on training prospective employees, said Flint Besecker, Athenex’s chief operating officer.

Besecker said about 150 plant workers would require advanced science degrees; about 150 would be able to get hired for the plant without retraining if they’ve worked in a warehouse or factory; and about 150 would require retraining.

“We would prefer to use the existing workforce, who are already committed to the area,” he said. “While we might be importing the plant leadership, it’s our goal to have as many of the local people employed, or retrained.”

The region has suffered a double blow of seeing ConAgra plants in Dunkirk and Fredonia close, costing 425 jobs, and the recent mothballing of the NRG Energy plant in Dunkirk, which will cost 63 jobs, said Katie Geise, executive director of Chautauqua County’s Workforce Investment Board.

Her concern is that the workers are looking now for jobs at the Athenex plant that won’t come available for two, three or four years.

“Soon, for them, is yesterday,” Geise said.

Still, for Silvana Bajdas, branch manager for Infinity Resources Staffing Services, a temp agency in Dunkirk, the Athenex factory was welcome news. Her husband, Robert Sr., was a forklift operator for ConAgra for 20 years and was out of work for four months after losing his job.

“It’s amazing. Nine hundred jobs is wonderful. We need it. Kids are moving out. We need them to stay here,” she said after attending the announcement at Dunkirk High School last month.

email: swatson@buffnews.com