Pumping up people supply to build heart valves

Workforce planning at Sorin Group Canada focuses on finding highly specialized talent

Building an aortic pericardial heart valve is no easy task. The intricate medical device — measuring mere millimetres — requires highly specialized skills in its production and engineering. So for a Burnaby, B.C.-based company that manufactures this product, workforce planning is particularly challenging, thanks to a small talent pool.

Sorin Group Canada is the only Canadian company to make a tissue heart valve, through its Mitroflow division. Last year the company received approval from the Food and Drug Association (FDA) in the United States, which meant it had to fill 60 new positions in anticipation of increased production in 2009.

“The nature of our product requires us to kind of ramp up our hiring at certain points,” says Judith Thompson, senior manager of HR at Sorin Group. “We need to know ahead of time, so to speak, what our sales forecasts are going to be. So it does take some planning and some crunching at times.”

The 300-employee company has three main employee areas of focus: engineers, for custom-engineered machinery and equipment; quality assurance, to ensure regulations are followed; and production technicians.

“But these aren’t folks punching out pieces from equipment, they are production technicians that hand-suture a heart valve, which is quite small, so there’s a certain skill set we need to test for,” says Thomson. “We have 85 who do hand-sewing and 25 who do hand-suturing.”

At one time, Sorin could see 250 responses to job ads but with low unemployment in B.C., fewer candidates fit the bill.

“Canada isn’t well-known for its biomedical engineers so even when we hire now, to ask for medical device experience, we wouldn’t get it,” says Thompson. “So we hire an engineer or scientist and train on the rest of it.”

The company has also come to realize the benefits, and necessity, of new immigrants as a major source for talent.

“Our culture here is very diverse. About 90 per cent of staff speak English as a second language, from production people to vice-presidents, so we don’t look for Canadian-born, Canadian-educated, Canadian experience because in these economic times that would set us back,” she says. “I would never have filled 60 positions last year with that criteria.”

Training is extensive as it takes three to four months before workers, wearing gowns and gloves in a super-clean environment, can make a product that is usable. And even then they can only make a certain number of valves or components per week — it takes another six months to ramp up to regular production, says Thompson.

Sorin supports its employees with in-house English-language training, through a partnership with Immigration Services. And it provides subsidies to foreign-trained engineers who want to pursue an engineering degree in B.C.

“We just can’t speak enough about the program and the return on investment we’ve gotten,” says Thompson. “We’re getting better feedback on problems on the floor because the employees are more comfortable speaking to the researchers and scientists and surgeons who come in on tours. The confidence level of the group has gone up and they are very devoted to the company and the product they make.”

Workforce planning is done largely on a year-by-year basis, she says, depending on the production levels at the manufacturing plant (which has about 250 employees, while the Toronto sales office has about 50). The 25-year-old company has a young workforce — the average age is 40 — and has not yet had an employee retire. Twenty years ago there were only nine staff and when Thompson came on 10 years ago, only 45.

“Being a young company and privately owned at that time, young engineers and scientists came on board, and new graduates,” she says.

For planning purposes, HR meets with the vice-president, director of operations and director for quality assurance on a weekly basis. They bring information on their different groups and projects, and assess what’s in the pipeline and what skill sets are needed in developing or bringing someone onboard. Sometimes that can mean bringing someone under another person’s direction, or splitting people up, “to be as efficient as we can,” she says.

More recently, Sorin has focused on the areas of succession planning and talent management. Last year it slotted high potentials for their next roles, assessing what would be required, and this year the development programs will kick off.

“We would prefer not to go outside the company for those skill sets, we prefer to keep them in-house and build that here. So we’ve put a lot into certain individuals who have shown an interest in certain areas, to support them in that.”

The planning should only increase in importance as demand grows for the Mitroflow product, with aging baby boomers and surgeons leaning away from mechanical valves to tissue valves, she says.

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