CEO Shawn Kinney explained what the company does, touching on the challenges and the strengths of being located in the Berkshires.
LEE, Mass. — Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing has a unique niche that has tremendous growth potential.
The owners are now hoping others will follow their lead and develop a "cluster" in the life science field of the Berkshires.
Owners Shawn Kinney and Andrea Wagner led U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on a tour of their facility on Tuesday. The company specializes in manufacturing small-scale injectable drugs for clinical trials but does so with an isolator that ups the quality of the clean-room product.
"I see no end to the amount of business this particular company can do. I see that our role here is really not so much about expanding business — although that is extremely critical — it is about getting other people to do what we've done," Wagner said.
"We want to make sterile manufacturing more protective for the general populous. Right now it is one in a thousand in terms of potential to get a contaminated unit. With isolators, that goes down dramatically."
The company formed three years ago and is up to about 50 employees, has eight new workers starting in the coming weeks, and is ready to hire 10 more soon. The owners say they can reasonably expect to double in size in the next year.
The company has found clients in the research and development field throughout the world.
"Typically what we receive from the company is a white powder of some sort. It is a drug molecule we then take and dissolve into liquid, adjust the concentration and strength and the sterile filter it. And in a sterile environment, we put it into the final container. It could be a vile, a cartridge, a syringe, whatever the company wants," Kinney explained.
"We've adopted the most advanced technologies for the manufacturer of these pharmaceuticals of a small scale. Typically, small-scale manufacturers like us will have much older, antiquated equipment. We've embraced modern technology known as isolators."
The operations being in Lee is particularly helpful because of the cost of real estate. The pair had owned a business in the Boston area before and started Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing with the purchase of the Pleasant Street warehouse. The company built out the clean room processes, including importing the material for the isolators, which further limit possible contamination to products.
"We purchased this building. We own it and we have lots of room to expand and grow. Andrea and myself own the company. We owned another company in the Boston area that we built up and did the same type of work. And we paid more a month than the annual cost of a mortgage for the property here. That has been a big advantage to us," Kinney said.
But the challenge is posed when they look to fill those jobs it will soon be available. The company struggles to find workers with the right skill sets — particularly for the higher level jobs — and often has to hire recruiters to find candidates from elsewhere.
"For a lot of these advanced skill sets, we are finding we need to move people into the environment. But that's helpful because these people are buying homes, bringing kids here. It helps the local economy," Kinney said.
The company has joined with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative for an internship program, which the owners praised for helping to get local talent. Through that, students at community colleges or state schools can be employed by the company for four months, with the state paying the salary.
"It gives us the opportunity to basically train that employee for three months at no cost to us. At the end of the three months when we are picking up their salary, they are a valuable employee to us," Kinney said.
Kinney suggested that helping to recruit from out of state has a benefit and asked the state government to consider an incentive program for companies that do so.
"We need to get incentives to hire people outside of Massachusetts. It is a zero-sum game hiring them here. If I hire a manager, I am hiring them from somebody else in Massachusetts. Why not get them from out of state? If there was some incentive to offer to people to move to Massachusetts as part of their employment that an employer can give them, that would pay back immediately in taxes," Kinney said.
He said the argument that the cost of living is less here doesn't help persuade somebody living in a place like New Jersey to move — the pay must match up, too. Matching the salaries of jobs in places where the cost of living is significantly more is OK with Kinney, but that is also added to recruiter fees and moving costs companies provide.
"We cannot convince them to take a lower salary once they get here. The part that is difficult for us as a company is that when we have to pay a recruiter to go help us find these people and we are paying them 30, 40 percent of that person's salary. That hurts a lot," Kinney said.
Neal particularly praised the efforts to grow talent locally. He offered to help convene a meeting with business prospects and those in the workforce development field — including the local colleges — to bolster alignment of the jobs with the training offerings.
State Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal both focused attention on workforce development programs, hoping to create an pipeline of locally trained workers to fill jobs the company will soon have available.
"There are 6 million tech jobs across the country that go unanswered and between 17,000 and 20,000 precision manufacturing jobs across New England goes unanswered. The worker participation rate in America right now is at about 63 percent, and that is down about three points from where it has been in the post-war norm," Neal said.
"Aligning people with the job opportunities that exist is a role government can play."
Neal says there is a skills gap nationwide. State Sen. Adam Hinds said both importing workers to help grow companies and training more local people to take the jobs are needed to support economic development in the county. Berkshire Sterile Technology doesn't hire anybody who has less than an associate's degree for any job and has numerous jobs requiring significantly more.
"We need to make sure the folks who want jobs here have the training to get the jobs that are existing and then if there are other folks from the outside that could be useful, then, by all means, let's bring them in," Hinds said.
The life science field is seen as a growing sector and one the county could embrace because it already has a foothold in the county.
"Kendell Square in Cambridge now has the highest concentration of research and development in the world. That is a startling number when you consider what is happening. You have manufacturing in the Western part of the state. You have research in the eastern part of the state. And these industries tend to draw smart people," Neal said.
Kinney and Wagner say their clients in Boston like that they are so close because companies that do similar production are located far away. It is easier for the local research and development firms to visit their manufacturer.
"We are within an hour of two airports, Hartford (Conn.) and Alban (N.Y.), and we are two hours from Boston so it is easy for clients to get out here to see us," Kinney said.
Wagner envisions not so much help from the government in expanding business — though she suggested access to more interns from the Mass Life Sciences program — but growing similar businesses that support each other nearby.
"There are other industries that could settle here. We do a piece of the puzzle for drug development for these biotech companies and pharmaceutical but there are other pieces. You could put a clinical packaging group out here easily. People would love it," Wagner said.
Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing creates the drug for testing, but from there it needs to have specific labeling and packaging. Wagner says having such a company, even in the space currently going unused in her facility, would help both businesses. Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing would love to take that type of business on, but it requires a significant capital investment upfront, capital a 3-year old company doesn't currently have available.
"It takes a very large capital investment to get that going," Kinney said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli says the opportunity for the Berkshires to do that is possible.
"I think this is the kind of manufacturing facility the Berkshires can attract, right across the street is Boyd Technology and we saw a similar operation there," Pignatelli said. "I think there are opportunities for Sen. Hinds and I to work on enhancing the educational opportunities and the employment opportunities. This is the manufacturing of the 21st century. It is happening here in Western Mass, it is happening in the Berkshires, and we need to help companies like this take it to the next level."
Neal said there are companies like that elsewhere in the Berkshires — whether it be General Dynamics or Boyd Technologies — that need to be supported.
"It highlights the aspiration and achievement but also points out that this didn't just happen. There is a significant capital investment here and they pointed out the needs that we have and where government could be of some assistance," Neal said. "It reminds all of us that there are a lot of opportunities across Berkshire County."
From a government standpoint, Neal said economic development policy gets complicated. He said there are ways to use the tax system, Medicare, tariffs, trade agreements, and more all come into providing job growth. He wants Washington to put aside the bitter arguments and focus on a sound economic policy.
"Economics are very complicated and I wish America could actually have a conversation about what we really need and move away from the incendiary words that today are so much a part of the political lexicon and talk about job growth," Neal said.
Below that national level, Hinds said state lawmakers will be focused on helping Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing address any needs to could hinder its growth.
"It is clear that a company like this is poised and ready to take the next step. We need to make sure they have all the support they need whether it is workforce development or ensuring there are tax credits and other ways to inventive other supplier companies to come in. They've demonstrated they are a hub that can be developed and grow," Hinds said.
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