Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexmark's loss of highly skilled workers could be state's gain

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

What if Lexington had the opportunity to attract more than 500 highly skilled technical workers, many of whom suddenly had the flexibility and motivation to start their own companies?

The good news is that Lexington doesn't have to attract them; they're already here. The bad news is that many of them are getting ready to leave.

Lexmark's decision last month to lay off 350 employees and 200 contractors as part of closing its inkjet printer operations has prompted entrepreneur support organizations and state and local officials to scramble to find ways to keep them in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. is marshalling resources across the state for a project called "Another Path." It is inviting workers being cut by Lexmark to a free informational meeting Sept. 24 from 9 a.m. until noon at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 1801 Newtown Pike.

Meanwhile, a non-profit group called Startup Advantage has scheduled another free event for the Lexmark people to meet local technology entrepreneurs and investors at 5:50 p.m. Sept. 26 at West Sixth Brewery, 501 W. Sixth St. Learn more at Meetup.com/Startup-Advantage.

"We see this as an exciting positive reaction to an unfortunate situation," said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., a private, non-profit organization working to develop the state's high-tech economy. "This is a unique infusion of experienced technical knowledge and creativity, and we need to do whatever we can to keep it here."

Kimel said many of the people Lexmark is letting go are engineers and senior-level designers with expertise and experience in microfluidics, the precise manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids. That specialty has many valuable applications besides inkjet printing.

"There's a lot of knowledge and talent that we think has adjacent uses," Kimel said. "There are new companies there, without a doubt."

Kimel said several of the people leaving Lexmark have already contacted KSTC for information and advice about starting their own companies.

Kimel said he has enlisted help from the offices of mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, state economic development officials and even private insurance companies.

Among the things they're looking at: Could state unemployment insurance be extended to these entrepreneurs while they get new companies started, the way it would be if they were simply searching for a job with an established company? Could health insurance companies figure out creative ways to extend coverage to these startup entrepreneurs and their employees until they get going?

Another Path will not just be a "one off" meeting, Kimel said. KSTC staff members plan to set aside at least three or four hours a week to work with those leaving Lexmark to help them navigate the complexities of starting a company or working for a startup.

"We're trying to design a pretty comprehensive process to mine that talent and see how many companies we can grow from this," said Kimel, whose organization already runs several entrepreneur-support programs as part of its work.

"It's a different mindset than just going to work for another big company," he said. "Starting your own company isn't for everyone.

"This effort is about creating an ecosystem to support those people who want to try."

Randall Stevens, a Lexington technology entrepreneur involved with Startup Advantage, said the group wanted to reach out to those leaving Lexmark to help them get to know local entrepreneurs, investors and those who provide support services for startup companies.

"If you get people in a room together, you have more of a chance of things happening," Stevens said. "A lot of being a startup is being around others who can encourage you."

The Lexmark workers also might be able to find some short-term work opportunities or entrepreneurs they could help mentor with their expertise and experience.

Kimel believes Kentucky's economic development future will depend more and more on entrepreneurship, rather than enticing established companies to relocate to the state.

"Lexington has never had this big a pool of technology talent suddenly available," Kimel said. "And if we don't do something, most of that talent will leave."

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