Nephron employs teachers

Teachers working part time for Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation work to fill backlogged orders for in-demand medicines at the company's manufacturing plant on Friday in Cayce. Provided

CAYCE — With employees hard to come by, a Cayce pharmaceutical manufacturer is targeting teachers as a part-time workforce solution and offering $21 per hour to do it.

For the past six weeks, teachers have made their way across the Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation campus for the start of their shift, said CEO Lou Kennedy.

The daughter of teachers, Kennedy said she saw an opportunity to help educators needing extra income and also get the manpower necessary to fill her company’s growing backlog. Three weeks after posting the callout online, Nephron had to close the list due to response. About 650 current and former teachers signed up to work some nights, weekends and over the summer.

"That's pretty high," South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East said of the wage. "No wonder they had 600 people apply for that."

East said many teachers seek jobs within their districts, like tutoring homebound students, that bring a similar salary. Others can make enough waiting tables or bartending. But for a retail job, many receive around $11 per hour, she said.

Lisa Ellis, co-founder of the grassroots teacher organization SC for Ed, also said she's not surprised and wonders why more employers haven't tried to tap into the wealth of knowledge she says teachers bring.

"On the other side, I think it demonstrates problems we have with funding in education," Ellis said. "It's testimony to the fact we need to continue to work to increase teacher salaries."

Following calls for education reform in the state and an unprecedented protest by teachers on May 1, South Carolina educators are likely to see a minimum 4 percent bump in pay next year when lawmakers return to the statehouse.

Nephron has had to limit the positions to 10 to 15 hours per week due to the high demand. The work packaging syringes is simple but the company gets the benefit of employees who are background checked, reliable and educated, Kennedy said. According to a state chamber of commerce survey, 163 of 245 respondents said they have unfilled positions they are struggling to find qualified candidates for. The state's unemployment rate was 3.2 percent in March.

"There’s nobody left available," Kennedy said. "Anyone who wants to work is working."

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Chambers of commerce in Columbia and Charleston said they are unaware of any other major employers approaching teachers for part-time work. Neither was Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. 

"There is no other program in South Carolina that does something like this on this scale and you would be hard-pressed to find a similar program of this magnitude nationally," said South Carolina Chamber of Commerce President Ted Pitts.

East said she's heard of a $1,400 to $2,000 stipend offered by utility supply manufacturer MacLean Power Systems in York to teachers who spend a few weeks in their facility learning what math and science skills the employer needs in its future workforce. 

"It's a shame we have to do this," Kennedy said, stressing the need for reform. "They're taking work home. They're working more than classroom hours. We're just not paying them enough."

Some of the teachers just plan to work for the extra $210 a week long enough to pay for new tires or their kid's summer camp, Kennedy said. Others have told her they need it to pay the rent. Many are local but some have driven one or two hours from towns like York, Camden, Florence and Newberry. 

While most of Nephron's operations are automated, Kennedy said a newer division of the company serves about 3,000 hospitals, quickly filling orders for high demand drugs in an effort to curb shortages. It will take at least another year before it can automate and it plans to continue offering the extra hours to teachers until then.