DECATUR — Since the beginning of 2011, Akorn Inc. has been undergoing a multimillion-dollar expansion at its two Decatur facilities.
Production has more than doubled, and about 100 jobs have been added.
With another expansion in the works, the Lake Forest-based pharmaceutical maker is looking to hire another 22 to 25 positions, adding to the 300-person local work force, said Steve Coventry, general manager of Akorn’s Decatur operations.
Jobs are available for those with backgrounds that include finance, production, chemistry, microbiology, engineering and business.
However, finding enough qualified workers to fill the openings isn’t as simple as it might seem, Coventry said.
“We can’t have people just take it as a job,” Coventry said. “Because of what we do, we’re making products so people can have a better life. You literally have people’s lives in your hands.”
Many applicants disqualify themselves before Human Resources Manager Karen Logan even has a chance to look at the stack of resumés on her desk.
Those applicants can’t pass background checks or drug screenings, she said. Others don’t disclose enough information, which hurts them when the company finds out, Logan said.
“There are no secrets, as anything you do when you’re young can catch up to you,” Coventry said. “A lot of people don’t think that would be the case.”
Amid high unemployment, Akorn is among other manufacturers that need to find skilled workers for plants across the country but have reported trouble getting the best ones.
Coventry would like to find enough workers so the company can cut down on overtime. Unlike other facilities, the Akorn operation can’t shut down at the end of the day, so workers who are there must stay until the job is done.
“We can’t just shut the lines down after eight hours because we’re making medicine,” Logan said. “We have to stay until it’s finished. That takes dedication.”
The Grand Avenue facility operates around the clock, while the Wyckles Road building operates two shifts.
Products made in Decatur range from liquid injectables used in surgeries to eye drops found at drugstores. Customers needing sterile pharmaceutical products can arrange for contract manufacturing.
The 65,000-square-foot Grand Avenue facility, built in 1952, has been expanded seven times, the latest for a freeze-drying process. The Wyckles Road building contains warehousing, product bottling lines and space for inspections.
Akorn is not a traditional manufacturer, so Coventry said each applicant is given a tour of the operations before they are hired. They’re expected to be able to work in varying parts of the operation, he said.
“We want them to see the job they will be doing,” Coventry explained.
The company takes products through every stage of development. In 2010, it produced 14.5 million units, rising to 19.9 million in 2011, and it is expecting to produce 32 million units in 2012.
The company works with institutions such as Richland Community College for training potential employees and has found success filling positions through Workforce Investment Solutions, Logan said.
“We are drawing a lot of interest,” she said. “You’re definitely being screened when you come in. Out front, they know to bring a really good applicant in immediately, and we can do the interview right there.”
The work can be hard. For example, booth inspectors meticulously check each bottle by hand for cracks and other defects, a process Coventry said could eventually be replaced by an automated system.
For now, the checks go on in the basement of the Wyckles Road building, as the workers there must be able to maintain their focus while looking at the small details of a product.
The careful processes pay off as the company has never had a product recalled for labeling, which Coventry said is a leading cause for recalls. Maintaining compliance with regulations has really allowed the company to hit its growth spurt, he said.
The emphasis for each worker, Coventry said, is the importance of the job they’re completing.
Coventry said the workplace features a sterile environment. Workers have to learn how to get in and out of gowns without contaminating them.
“We have no such things as a noncritical job,” he said. “They know what they’re doing is impacting and potentially saving lives.”
Across the country, 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled, according to a Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute survey published last year. The shortage is expected to worsen, so companies are mindful of keeping positions filled.
Retention is important at Akron. Generally, after somebody has worked there a year, they remain for a long time, Coventry said.
Attracting workers to Decatur is an ongoing challenge.
“We’re not in a pharmaceutical mecca,” Coventry said. “So it’s getting people to the Decatur area with a pharmaceutical background.”
Scott Gillett worked his way up the ranks since starting with Akorn in 1992, and now, he is a technician supervisor.
“For me, it’s always a challenge with a new way of doing things,” Gillett said. “You’re involved in something bigger than your own company. We’re always producing something that somebody is going to use.”
Akorn management is mindful that their future appears brighter than other companies that have met harder times.
The demand for pharmaceutical products should stay strong, Coventry said.
“We tell applicants pharmaceuticals are always going to be needed, so it’s a good, secure job with good benefits to it,” Coventry said. “We are a growing company.”