ELLSWORTH — The Jackson Laboratory’s new chief operating officer and executive vice president, Catherine “Katy” Longley, has a message for the region: the lab is hiring and the jobs are good.
“We still are in a rapid growth mode,” said Longley in an interview at the lab’s Bar Harbor campus.
“We have good quality jobs, good benefits” and 107 open positions between the lab’s Bar Harbor and Ellsworth campuses.
The lab has around 1,500 employees in Bar Harbor and 41 in Ellsworth, Longley said. At “full build-out” there will be 350 positions in Ellsworth.
Longley took the reins from the lab’s longtime chief operating officer and executive vice president, Chuck Hewett, this summer. Longley said she wants to build on Hewett’s legacy and “on his commitment to workforce development.”
Issues such as “housing, employment [and] wages are near and dear to me,” Longley said. “I want to leverage what he did and keep building that.”
To that end, said Longley, the lab will soon begin looking at tackling two of its greatest challenges: housing and transportation.
Affordable housing has long been an issue on Mount Desert Island, where the median home value has doubled since 2000, but is also a struggle in Ellsworth and elsewhere in the region.
“Everything’s on the table right now,” said Longley, when asked how the lab’s leaders intend to address the issue. “Whether it’s a collaboration,” such as one with Acadia National Park or developers, Longley continued, “We’re going to explore all options.”
This could include “guaranteeing spaces for tenants in a new apartment building or helping co-develop,” as well as other approaches.
The nonprofit owns 100 acres near Schooner Head that could potentially be developed, said Longley, “but that alone will not fulfill all our employee housing needs.”
Then there is the problem of getting those employees from their houses and apartments to the lab’s campuses.
“As we unpack the housing issue we also want to look at transportation,” Longley said.
The organization already subsidizes buses for its employees from as far away as Milbridge and Bangor. Commuters pay between $17 and $20 a week for a subscription, according to Downeast Transportation’s website.
The new facility in Ellsworth will shorten the commute for many lab employees, Longley said. The Ellsworth facility is largely focused on mouse production, allowing the organization’s Bar Harbor headquarters to expand its research space, but there will also be administrative and other support systems in Ellsworth, Longley said.
The first mice were shipped from Ellsworth in December 2018, Longley said. “Now we’re building out additional rooms, expanding the size of the facility.”
The second phase of construction will also include the addition of a fitness facility.
The Ellsworth facility opened in August, several months behind schedule. In January, attorneys for the lab sued Vermont-based contractor PC Construction Co. for “defective,” delayed work on the first phase, which was slated to cost $47 million.
The second phase is being built out by Maryland-based contractor Whiting-Turner, which Longley said was involved in building its Connecticut facility. Asked why the company did not go with a Maine firm, Longley replied: “We have contractors we work with from all over New England and we work with a lot of Maine vendors.”
LuAnn Ballesteros, the lab’s vice president of external and government affairs, added that out of 800 vendors the organization used in 2017, 600 were from Maine. The lab projects it will generate $544 million in direct and indirect economic activity in the state between now and 2026, Longley said.
“We’re very dedicated to using Maine companies,” Ballesteros said.
The organization is also dedicated to drawing talent from around the world, Longley said.
“Twenty-eight percent of new employees are coming from outside Maine,” she noted, “which we are proud of because it helps reduce the out migration.” Ballesteros added that many are Mainers returning back after living away.
“JAX is one of those magnet organizations that brings people home.”
To entice potential employees, the lab raised its minimum wage in 2016 to $15 per hour. The average annual compensation package (including salary and benefits) comes in at $64,000, Longley said. This is higher than the median income for an entire household in Hancock County, which was $52,000 last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
“I really would love to make JAX the employer of choice,” Longley said. “Those designations of ‘best place to work’ … that would be my aspirational goal.”
The Jackson Lab is the fifth largest nonprofit and 17th largest employer in Maine, Longley added.
Employees are well-paid up to the highest levels. Hewett’s compensation package totaled $1.57 million during his last full year on the job, the second-highest after the organization’s President and CEO Edison Liu, who earned $1.65 million, according to 2017 government filings. Longley was third-highest paid in her former role as vice president and chief financial officer, making $545,673 in salary and benefits.
The organization brought in close to $400 million in 2017, before expenses. Longley said salaries at the lab are where they need to be to attract top researchers and are in line with similar institutions, such as the Salk Biological Institute (Salk is less than half the size of Jackson Lab but paid its president just under $1 million in 2016).
“We’re attracting people from pharma, the best scientific and academic institutions in the world,” Longley said. “We’re very careful about setting compensation to be market competitive … We need to compete for the best talent. We think our levels are compensation are reflective and fair and not atypical of our peer institutions.”
Longley added that she wants to keep the lab’s research at the forefront.
“At its core, the laboratory is a research institution,” Longley said. She cited the organization’s designation as a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center (the only one in Maine), as well as its work on Alzheimer’s, aging and addiction.
“People do think of us sometimes as the mouse house. Obviously we’re very proud of our mouse models and what they contribute to research around the world. But at our core we are a nonprofit research institution.”