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Charleston City Paper: A look at a hiring bonanza during low unemployment

December 24, 2021

At a time when many South Carolina employers are complaining about the lack of people they can hire, there’s a lesson to be learned from Nephron Pharmaceuticals in Lexington County: Be creative, fun and flexible, and you just might get the workers you need – even during the holidays.

“We’ve onboarded so many people I just bought another bus to get people from the parking lot to the employee entrance,” said Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy in an exclusive interview. 

In the last five weeks, Nephron has hired 1,600 part-time employees to augment its full-time work force of 1,200 workers and 800 part-time staff in an all-out effort to produce 30 million vials of reagents used in COVID-19 kits as well as assembling millions of COVID-19 test kits sold in pharmacies.

“We’ve ramped from 20,000 kits on the first day to 2 million at the end of the first month,” Kennedy said. “We onboarded 1,600 people in the last five weeks with people of all ages of all shapes and sizes. I think that is remarkable given the employment challenges of the whole country and South Carolina.”

Just last week, the state Department of Employment and Workforce announced the state had more people employed than in any time of its history, which, in turn, meant an uber-low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.

“The November employment numbers show that we have 2,317,620 people employed, which is 4,302 more than the previous high in October of 2019. And is 18,279 more than the pre-pandemic level in February of 2020,” said S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce Executive Director Dan Ellzey in a press release. 

“Along with the rise in people employed, we also have a significant decrease in the state’s unemployment rate. The November number is 3.7 percent compared to the October number of 3.9 percent. 3.7 percent is a post-pandemic low. In 19 months, our state dropped 7.8 points in its unemployment rate, from 11.5 percent in April and May of 2020 to the current rate,” he said.

In the middle of this employment environment, Nephron launched an effort to hire 2,500 temporary workers to fuel its COVID-19 packaging project. Some might say “daunting.” Others might say it would never work.

But they haven’t met Kennedy, whose energy is infectious and whose drive inspires team-wide excellence. So how have they done it? Through a blend of creativity, flexibility, competition and what she called “funky” outside-of-the-box thinking.

They attracted college fraternity and sorority members with part-time, flexible hours and contests to make the most number of kits. They reached out to local high schools and helped kids write resumes. They mined talent from area baseball, basketball, cheerleading and other sports squads. They posted flyers in elevators. They asked teachers who already worked part-time at Nephron to spread the word in churches and community groups to people who might want to work two hours a day to several to make a little extra holiday cash.

“Then they get caught up in the fun and competition of it and, all of a sudden, they’re bringing five or 10 of their friends,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a real grassroots effort.”

The company also tries to make the work experience, which starts around $15 per hour, similar to that of an Uber driver by paying part-time project workers immediately after a shift through an online account.

“It’s just a real holiday story where you can roll up your sleeves,” Kennedy said. “And here’s something we can do to get this country back to some sort of normalcy” by making more test kits to help the fight to smother the pandemic.

“You’ve got kids and their grandparents working on the same project,” she said. “There are senior citizens. We’ve got aunts, uncles. It’s like the Grinch story – the whole community of Whoville is down here” working together.

There’s another benefit: The effort to get more part-time help for the COVID-19 project is helping to fill other positions.

“The beauty of it is we’ve been able to identify out of this pool of temporary workers some full-time workers. And we’ve onboarded full-time-ers,” she said. “It’s been a recruiting bonanza.”