Wanted: Medtech Workers

Minnesota companies are desperately seeking workers with agile minds to fill challenging jobs in engineering, compliance, project management, insurance reimbursement and more!

By Brian Martucci
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

According to Indeed, the average systems engineer earns about $92,000 per year, with senior positions pulling in $10,000 to $20,000 more. According to Glassdoor, the average primary care physician in the Twin Cities market earns about $165,000 per year. Surgeons and other specialists can earn several times that amount.

Professionals who earn this kind of money usually don’t need to work second jobs to pay the bills. Most don’t have the time, anyway. So why are well-compensated medical professionals, engineers and other highly trained professionals flocking to QuickConsult, a new on-demand medical device and technology consulting platform from Minneapolis-based MEDgineering?

Bringing Medtech Hiring Into the 21st Century

“Medtech hiring is stuck in the 20th century,” says David Amor, MEDgineering founder and managing partner. “We’re applying the sharing economy model — we call it the ‘expertise economy’ — to an important problem that hasn’t received very much attention so far.”

In the medical device and IT industries, the cost of a bad hire can easily exceed the employee’s annual salary and put a project months behind schedule. At the same time, talented clinicians, engineers, researchers and regulatory experts increasingly value flexible, short-term engagements that offer competitive pay and challenging work. QuickConsult’s projects range from specific questions around regulatory or quality issues and more, to months-long development and project engagement.

For big companies, QuickConsult’s flexibility makes it possible to tackle small, discrete problems without taking full-time employees off other projects or taking months to hire a full-timer (and risking a bad hire). For startups and smaller companies that can’t afford to hire full-timers, QuickConsult offers low-cost, on-demand access to talent. In fact, says Amor, MEDgineering used a similar on-demand consulting platform to find an Eastern European web developer willing to build QuickConsult’s prototype website for $75.

Talent Shortages in Key Medtech Fields

The medtech industry’s hiring woes point to a broader industry trend: a talent shortage in key fields. In particular, the demand for experienced labor exceeds supply in regulatory and compliance affairs, quality control, insurance policy, project management and leadership-level engineering roles. Professionals who are qualified for these jobs are often occupied, either in full-time roles or a never-ending string of project-based consulting gigs. And when they are available, they typically come with a hefty price tag.

This creates an opening for St. Paul-based Minnetronix, an outsourcing firm whose 250 employees include experienced development and quality control engineers, regulatory experts and business specialists. Companies (typically startups to midsize) that lack the resources to design and build medical devices in-house, or can’t commit to a long, intensive hiring process, enlist Minnetronix to design, develop, test and manufacture their technologies.

Because it works with a multitude of clients in numerous sub-fields, Minnetronix provides its teams with engaging, varied projects, whose relatively shorter duration is set by the client. For employees, that’s a welcome alternative to the often highly specific, months- or years-long projects common to larger medical device firms — and ensures that Minnetronix isn’t as badly affected by the talent shortages that bedevil its clients.

“As a smaller, employee-friendly organization with a good reputation, we rarely encounter major obstacles to getting the talent we need,” says Diane Richard, Minnetronix’s HR director. “We’re actually really excited about our talent pipeline.”

But Minnetronix does have one highly specialized role to fill on a regular basis. At the head of each Minnetronix project team is a “program manager” who’s part engineer, part project manager and part account manager. Since the program manager oversees all technical work on a project, supervises rank-and-file team members, and serves as the primary client contact, he or she needs years of senior engineering experience, demonstrated leadership expertise and excellent communication skills.

How to Find Rare Medtech Talent

According to Tom Waddell, a partner at Project Leadership Services, it’s rare to find people qualified to fill such important, highly varied roles — and even rarer to find them between gigs. “Think of a Venn diagram with almost no overlap,” says Waddell. “That’s how unusual it is to find these skill sets in the same person.”

Waddell’s company specializes in recruiting and placement for these sought-after professionals. They typically have 15 or 20 professionals qualified to fill top-level project leadership roles, and can typically place available professionals within a couple days. PLS excels in crisis situations — projects badly behind schedule, managers quitting or being fired without warning, a major challenge beyond the capabilities of the current point person.

Even when there isn’t a crisis, says Waddell, “we have a very good reputation for getting things done.” He cites a past client who needed an experienced systems engineer with project leadership experience for a high-priority development initiative. After taking months to interview more than 100 unsuccessful candidates, the client turned to PLS and had a qualified consultant on staff in short order.

Waddell’s company is getting busier. He observes a recent spike in new medical device investment after years of consolidation, boosting demand for qualified project managers. At the same time, the FDA is getting serious about enforcing key regulations, driving an uptick in demand for quality control and product remediation experts — typically engineers with similar, though not identical, skills to development engineers.

“The FDA, understandably, wants to keep everyone in check and make sure devices do what their marketing materials say they will,” says Eric Petersen, principal recruiter at Plymouth-based Custom Search, which specializes in engineering and compliance recruiting. Petersen adds that local medtech companies expect the change to be permanent, and are adding regulatory and quality control experts accordingly.

Building a Pipeline to Fill Scarce Positions

Partly because high-quality, fully compliant devices are costly to develop and can’t afford to fail, Minnesota’s medtech industry is also increasingly focused on lean development and engineering practices.  Petersen sees “continuous improvement engineers,” a position that barely existed a decade ago, as a “hot area” for recruiters and device companies alike.

Continuous improvement engineers, who usually carry Lean Six Sigma certifications, constantly look for ways to improve productivity and outcomes during development. Their goal is simple: to control costs while maintaining product quality. The state’s biggest companies are particularly interested in continuous improvement, adds Petersen, though cash-strapped small and midsize companies could arguably benefit even more. Regardless, there aren’t enough qualified engineers to go around.

For related reasons, says MEDgineering’s Amor, insurance reimbursement experts are coming into vogue as well. Before it sinks lots of time and money into developing an expensive new device, a medical device company needs to pin down its revenue model. Most devices are too costly for out-of-pocket payments, so firms need to maximize the likelihood that Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance will reimburse for them. Though there aren’t any guarantees, experts with advanced health policy degrees and on-the-ground experience with Medicare/Medicaid/insurance reimbursement regimes can evaluate a given device’s chances and provide guidance early in the development process.

To find candidates with such in-demand skills, Minnesota’s medtech companies have to get creative. For Minnetronix, it’s all about cultivating relationships with selective higher education institutions — the University of Minnesota, Purdue University and Stanford University, to name a few. These relationships align and sync corporate and academic goals.

With each of Minnetronix’s university partners, says Richard, “we share information about our needs and discuss how to adjust curriculum” to maximize the employability of students. Minnetronix also works closely with individual faculty members, tapping them to serve as “scouts” for talented engineers outside traditional career fair settings. Promising candidates land long-term internships at Minnetronix, where they work on a variety of projects. And the company starts looking for talent as early as possible: Minnetronix is a major sponsor of St. Paul-based Great River School’s robotics program, for instance.

Even in the absence of formal employer partnerships, higher education institutions are adapting to the changing medtech landscape. St. Cloud State University recently launched a new regulatory affairs and services master’s certificate program that focuses on the medical device industry, complementing an existing, broader-based regulatory affairs master’s.And for medical software startups that can’t afford to build their own talent pipeline or wait for the population of in-demand grads to increase, TreeHouse Health co-founder John Blank has a quick fix: Tapping professional connections towork on projects in their spare time, and paying them (in part) with shares of a nascent company.

“There are lots of talented developers willing to work part-time on a project for equity,” says Blank, “even if they have full-time jobs.”

Who knows? Maybe a handful of overworked engineers are burning the midnight oil right now, shaping Minnesota’s next billion-dollar medtech company.