Breathing Life Into the Medical Device Industry’s Talent Crisis

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By Han Tang

From early detection to lifesaving treatment, the medical device industry engineers and manufactures various devices and equipment used by healthcare professionals and is the cornerstone of the services doctors provide. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies medical devices as “any instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, appliance, implant, reagent for in vitro use, software, material or another similar related article, intended for medical use.” These devices—including defibrillators, mobility and hearing aids, orthopedics, pacemakers, and catheters—prevent, diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate patient conditions. Despite the necessity of these items, the industry has faced unprecedented difficulties over the past two years.

Industry challenges

The pandemic delayed and cancelled elective surgeries, creating long lead times while healthcare needs increased. The medical device industry continues to battle various challenges:

  • Supply chain issue and inventory uncertainty: The United States is the world’s largest medical device market, making up 40 percent Before COVID-19, the U.S. relied heavily on the global supply chain to provide production for medical devices. During the pandemic, worldwide suppliers shut down operations, and hospitals turned to local and unorthodox suppliers to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and devices, while the cost of these supplies increased by 30 percent between 2020 and 2022. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to update its Medical Device Shortage List.
  • Semiconductor chip shortages: Around 50 percent of all medical devices have a semiconductor. In turn, they compete with the automotive, industrial, and consumer markets for these sought-after chips. The semiconductor chips are commonly used in ultrasounds, defibrillators, patient monitors, and infusion pumps. Due to the shortage, to receive any new devices, the wait times are upwards of 52 weeks. In the past, the U.S. relied on overseas production, but since COVID-19, it has expanded the semiconductor workforce to 49 states and Washington, D.C. Despite this effort, finding and retaining semiconductor talent to manufacture chips is a challenge.
  • Lack of qualified workers: The pool of highly specialized talent to fill positions in the medical device manufacturing industry has always been scarce, and the expected availability of skilled technicians—master machinists, floor leads, programmers, and manufacturing engineers—does not meet the projected future demand. According to Shannon Mills, Senior Director of FTI Consulting’s Supply Chain practice, “the push for college degrees and the societal downplaying of skilled labor over the course of the past 20 years has reduced the numbers of young workers entering this space.” Additionally, device manufacturers have struggled to hire semi-skilled and unskilled labor for the production floor since the COVID-19 pandemic. When workers can be found, they often require wages $3 to $4 an hour above what was paid before the pandemic.

The medical device workforce today

Ranked as the 37th largest U.S. industry by employment, the medical device manufacturing industry currently accounts for over 101,200 U.S. jobs and has increased 2.1 percent on average over the last five years. Fueled by technological developments, revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of 6.78 percent.

There is a wide path into medical device engineering and manufacturing. The eight areas of expertise are Quality Assurance (QA), Quality Control (QC), Manufacturing, Field Engineering, Research and Development Design, Validation, IT, and Sales. Many workers in the industry come from diverse work and academic backgrounds—the most common are engineers, pharmacists, doctors, managers, and environmental scientists.

Medical device organizations are located throughout the U.S. but are primarily gathered in large metropolitan areas in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota—known as Medical Alley or the Silicon Valley for digital health and med-tech companies. This big-city concentration creates a smaller talent pool and requires companies to convince candidates from throughout the U.S. to relocate.

Developing the medical device workforce of tomorrow

A competitive talent market means employers must stand out and find innovative ways to attract and retain the workers needed to keep pace with growth and technological advancements. To develop your medical device workforce of tomorrow:

  • Focus on reskilling and upskilling: The future of work lies in skills—not jobs, and there’s an ongoing shift to a skills-based approach to talent attraction and retention. Manufacturers recruit workers from other industries with related skill sets. Organizations must focus on lessening the gap by reskilling and upskilling through training and development and strong onboarding to improve attraction, retention, and internal mobility.

Related: Developing a Successful Workforce Upskilling Program

  • Use flexibility to attract and retain talent: Unlike industries such as professional services, consulting, and IT, remote work options are rare in manufacturing plants bound by geography when recruiting for research and development, QA and QC, and other on-site roles. However, flexibility extends beyond fully remote work. Consider offering your workers variable schedules and hybrid work options. Continued automation, and other advancements, may also allow manufacturers to use technology to enable more employees to work remotely, improving their talent attraction and retention success. 
  • Differentiate through purpose: Relocation benefits and competitive salary packages are a great way to get job candidates’ attention and convince them to relocate, but they are not enough anymore. Job fulfillment is a key differentiator in the medical device industry—employees want to know they are making a difference and have a purpose. Support innovation and new ideas by offering employees opportunities to work on new technologies, emphasize career growth opportunities, and provide ways for them to drive positive change in health care. Enhance your employer brand and rethink the purpose your organization offers your workers. Communicate through a compelling Employee Value Proposition to stand out as the employer of choice in the market.  

Related: The Importance of a Strong Employee Value Proposition With Examples

Related: How to Develop a Compelling Employee Value Proposition

The pandemic placed the medical device industry at center stage, with unprecedented demand for protective equipment, diagnostic tests, ventilators, and other medical supplies. As we move beyond the pandemic, the industry must rethink its supply-chain network and how to attract and retain top talent. Progressive organizations will win out over their competitors and position themselves for success in the years to come.

This blog was written by Acara Account Executive Han Tang.