The local talent pool in the biomedical industry has expanded dramatically since T.J. Johnson moved to Tucson to work for Ventana Medical 11 years ago, but he still must recruit regionally and nationally for top positions at HTG Molecular, where he is now president and CEO.
"It is a problem, but it's a problem that can be overcome with the right types of recruiting practices, the right types of hiring and development practices. Compared to 11 years ago, it has improved by leaps and bounds, because we've expanded the biomedical industry in Southern Arizona rapidly," he said.
Ventana paved the way for companies like his, and each subsequent company made it easier to keep talent local, he said.
"When I came to Ventana, I knew if it didn't work out, I'd have to go elsewhere," Johnson said.
Johnson's business, developing "high-throughput" methods for genetic diagnostic tests, requires employees with a variety of skill sets, he said.
"We are in a very technical scientific market," he said. Expertise in scientific research is easy to find at the University of Arizona, he said, but those skills alone aren't enough for his top positions.
"Experience developing new products is a key area as we look to expand our scientific base in Southern Arizona. We have a wealth and a talent base in the research, but not in people who are used to developing products.
"In the last year, we hired a number of development scientists, and all of them we brought in from outside," he said.
Another avenue, he said, is to develop the local talent through internship programs.
Johnson said he works with the University of Arizona to keep at least two interns at any one time at his small firm.
At the much larger Ventana Medical Systems/Roche, about 30 interns will join the workforce this summer, said Tom Longstreth, director of talent acquisition.
"We plan on continuing to grow our internship program. It's another way to pipeline talent into our organization," he said.
Ventana also works with Pima Community College on programs to provide the skilled workforce it needs, Longstreth said.
Ventana has hired about 80 employees that have attended Pima Community College, including several from the schools' biotech program, he said.
Longstreth said Ventana managers have also taught in the college's histology program, hiring 15 to 20 technicians from the program before it was discontinued a few years ago.
Assuring a pipeline of qualified workers requires continual involvement with educational entities, he said. The needs and the jobs change quickly these days.
He noted that his father has worked at the same job for 33 years, while he has had six different ones in 15 years.
The Tucson region supplies most of Ventana's needs for entry-level to midrange, but recruiting for Ph.D. researchers, pathologists, oncologists and "other high-level skill sets" often involves a national search, Longstreth said.
The skills he seeks are more than academic. "It's not just educational background but real-world, practical knowledge," he said.
Johnson, who is the industry co-chair for the Bioscience Leadership Council of Southern Arizona, said the region has a long way to go before its talent pool rivals places like the Bay Area or San Diego, but each new startup adds to it.
"Cool companies attract talented people, and talented people attract more talented people," he said.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4158.