Thermo Fisher Scientific
Filling technicians monitor vials being filled inside the aseptic core of a production line at the Greenville, North Carolina, Thermo Fisher Scientific facility. Real time monitoring is necessary to assure product quality and operational efficiency.

2021 IW Best Plants Winner: At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Developing Talent Is the Best Remedy

Aug. 27, 2021
Greenville, N.C., manufacturing campus meets growth challenges by investing in people development and embracing continuous improvement.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Greenville, North Carolina, manufacturing campus is expanding by leaps and bounds. That’s saying a lot, given that this 2021 IndustryWeek Best Plants Award winner already is expansive. The site has some 1.5 million square feet under roof across multiple buildings, on 640 acres, with nearly 487,000 square feet devoted to manufacturing operations.

Greenville was among Thermo Fisher’s largest manufacturing sites even before December 2020, when the company announced a $500 million investment at the campus to expand drug product development and commercial manufacturing. That expansion includes the addition of a 130,000-square-foot facility, with construction well underway, and the potential to add some 500 jobs to Thermo Fisher’s Greenville workforce.

Moreover, new pharmaceutical lines are scheduled for 2021 and 2022 in existing buildings.

In short, there’s an immense amount of activity going on at this campus, which provides contract pharmaceutical manufacturing services for both steriles (examples include vials or prefilled syringes) and oral solids (such as tablets or capsules) from early development to commercialization. And yes, COVID-19 therapies are among the pharmaceuticals produced in Greenville.

This immense amount of activity has generated an immense workforce need. It’s required the hiring and training of hundreds of people during a time of well-publicized labor shortages across the nation and, of course, a pandemic. That task alone sounds all-consuming but, coupled with Thermo Fisher’s need to ramp up its workforce without losing focus on quality and productivity even as new hires are integrated into the workforce, the challenge is huge.

The workforce’s ability to skillfully navigate these challenges is among the reasons Thermo Fisher Scientific, Greenville, was named a 2021 IW Best Plants Award winner.  

Finding Talent

Thermo Fisher fairly radiates “advanced manufacturing” with its model lean laboratory and highly automated manufacturing lines that require operators to gown up and follow strict procedures to maintain the environment needed to produce sterile drugs. It’s brightly lit, bristling with technology; it’s a showcase of what manufacturing advocates mean when they say manufacturing today is far from the “dark, dirty and dangerous” stereotypes of yesteryear.

Ultimately, however, it’s a people business. The workforce makes products that allow their fellow humans to lead better lives and even save lives. So the workforce is paramount.

“For myself and the leadership team, our sole job is to support all of our employees, and at the end of the day help them be successful, remove barriers to execution and create work environments where they can thrive,” says Michelle Logan, former vice president and general manager at the Greenville campus. Logan recently was promoted to vice president, Drug Product Division, North America. The Greenville site is part of that division.

Step one is to bring the right people on board. The Greenville campus has been staffing for growth for several years and has hired hundreds of new employees in that time frame. One might suspect the organization has a robust pipeline for talent, and indeed it does. That pipeline includes outreach and partnerships with local universities, virtual career fairs, a steriles talent development rotational program and a pre-hire program with a local community college. Any person who completes the 36-hour pre-hire program – and it is on their own time but at no cost to them – is guaranteed at least an interview with Thermo Fisher in Greenville. That program launched in January 2021 and has demonstrated early success. More than 10% of recent direct labor hires came via the pre-hire program.

The campus’s biggest driver of recent direct labor hires, however, speaks well of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s culture, says Logan. Greater than 30% of those hires were generated by referrals, ostensibly from employees who’ve enjoyed their experience at the Greenville site.

Of course, no job is for everyone. Just as a steel mill might be a bad fit for someone due to heat or lifting requirements, not all potential hires at Thermo Fisher are comfortable suiting up for lengthy periods in the gowns and other protective gear that many positions call for, says Christine Coates, director of human resources.

Still, evidence indicates Thermo Fisher’s multifaceted approach to finding talent is reaping rewards. Next comes training.

Steriles University’s Tools of Training

It’s a warm July afternoon in North Carolina, and Steriles University is in session. This university is not an educational institution you can find on a map anywhere. It is, instead, a carefully crafted training center contained within the walls of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s sprawling Greenville campus.

Certain elements of the training space are as you would imagine – a traditional classroom setting and seasoned instructors, as well as opportunities for new employees to physically handle the types of equipment they may interact with or move through mockups of the physical environment in which they will work. A new recruit to the steriles business can both practice donning required gear before entering a manufacturing space and learn what is meant by a tier board and why it matters.

The crown jewel of the school, however – at least from a technology standpoint – may be the use of virtual reality applications to train line operators as well as new hires in other positions. What makes the VR training particularly compelling is the head start it gives operators who have been hired to work on manufacturing lines that have not yet commenced operations. Those new hires can, in a virtual environment, learn and practice the steps for whatever process they will undertake when the physical lines start up.

Greenville’s leaders say Steriles University, which comes with a robust curriculum, provides a safe learning environment. It’s a sentiment shared by instructor Adam Thomas, who has decades of experience at the Thermo Fisher site and a background working in production.

The key is to learn. “I tell them mistakes are OK as long as we learn from them,” he says.

Site leadership ties the extensive training new hires receive to Greenville’s ability to avoid the types of temporary performance dips some organizations experience when new employees come onboard. “That’s why it’s so important,” says Coates. It does require, however, that an organization be willing to spend money on a new hire before that person is adding value. That can be a “tough pill for some companies to swallow,” she says.

An Operational Excellence Mindset

Absent an operational excellence mindset, growth and improvements at Greenville’s operations couldn’t happen. At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Practical Process Improvement (PPI) provides the foundation for continuous improvement and aims to build a culture of problem-solving and engagement.

Remember the tier board set up in Thermo Fisher’s training center? It’s a piece of the tools and practices that comprise the PPI system. More specifically, it is part of a tiered accountability system that spans the shop floor to the upper reaches of management. It’s presented as a learning tool in the training center because it’s simply that important for everyone to learn about and understand the organization’s continuous improvement philosophy.

A small team leads PPI activities across the site, but it’s everybody’s business. For example, 92% of all employees have engaged in operational excellence training, events or project participation.

“People get a taste of [PPI] from Day 1 and it becomes a cadence,” Logan says.

What’s also become a cadence at this Thermo Fisher Scientific site is growth. By all accounts, the Greenville team is building a workforce that’s up for the challenge.

Caption for top photo: Filling technicians monitor vials being filled inside the aseptic core of a production line at the Greenville, North Carolina, Thermo Fisher Scientific facility. Real time monitoring is necessary to assure product quality and operational efficiency.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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