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Leaders Of 3 Major Employers Discuss Growth, Challenges

By Cece Nunn, posted Oct 13, 2015
Three of the area’s largest employers expect to face future growth and challenges, company leaders said at an economic outlook event Tuesday.

“This year, we do plan on beating underlying market growth by several hundred basis points. We think it’s a very strong aspiration and one that our kind of growth in winning contracts would suggest we should be able to achieve,” said David Simmons, chairman and CEO of PPD, a global contract research organization headquartered in Wilmington.

Along with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy COO Jay Wileman and UNCW chancellor Jose Sartarelli, Simmons answered questions Tuesday morning as part of a panel discussion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Outlook conference, presented by the Swain Center for Business and Economic Services at the university's Cameron School of Business.

PPD had about 1,500 local employees last year, according to numbers the company provided to the Greater Wilmington Business Journal in a survey.

“Probably our largest challenge is the labor market and compensation inflation in the labor market in key roles. It’s quite interesting to see underemployment overall in the U.S. economy,” Simmons said, referring to numbers shared during economic outlook forecasts earlier at the conference Tuesday. “But when you get to very highly educated workers -- Ph.D.-level biostatisticians, for example -- our ability to have a strong supply of these folks is limited, and frankly we’ve got to go outside of the U.S. to fill a lot of these needs now. So if we can kind of increase the U.S. person’s appetite to pursue higher advanced education in quantitative fields and scientific fields, it would help take some pressure of our labor markets and put us in a stronger position.”

The future of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, which along with GE Aviation employs about 3,000 people at its Castle Hayne facilities, also involves a global view, Wileman said.

“If you think about what drives power generation around the world, it’s really population growth, it’s emerging market growth and it’s urbanization within there, and everybody getting a better standard of living – access to power, clean water health care being three of the things that drives that,” Wileman said. “There’s 1.3 billion people out there without access to electricity and the power markets are supposed to grow.”

At UNCW, where 2,000 are employed, leaders there are looking at attracting more international students. The university’s overall enrollment number grew to nearly 15,000 students this year, an all-time record, the chancellor said.

“The total higher education market in this country is about 21 million students. International brings about 890,000 students a year [to the U.S.], and we only have 350 of those. So there’s a lot of potential in attracting international students to us,” Sartarelli said.

At the same time, the area of online education “is exploding in terms of growth,” he said, with UNCW’s online enrollment at about 1,500 students.

Other ways the school is working to bring more students to UNCW is by creating new programs, such as a master’s in business analytics and a doctorate in nursing practice, the chancellor said.

For PPD, another big challenge is coming in the next five, 10 or 20 years, Simmons said, in the form of customers shifting toward more personalized medicine. He used the hypothetical example of trying to find lung cancer patients with a specific gene mutation that only exists in small percentage of the overall lung cancer patient population in a drug development program.

“It’s good for all of us as a society, but it is increasing the complexity,” Simmons said.
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