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May 1, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 9)

Creating and Educating a New Biotech Workforce

Firms, Regions, and Nonprofits Need to Work Together to Develop Future Industry Workers

  • John Radford told colleagues at a recent meeting of the BayBio Workforce Committee that he has "some concern about where all these new hires are going to come from."

    Radford, the executive behind the biotechnology industry compensation guides bearing his name, expressed a concern that each of the companies he has interviewed in Northern California has plans to grow staff a minimum of 10% in the next year. While that may seem like only moderate growth, it represents a fairly large chunk of new hires for one biotech region.

    Bay Area employers, like those in other bioclusters, already consider certain categories of employees to be especially hard-to-find. To mitigate this issue, the region has launched a workforce development effort through the Northern California industry organization, BayBio.

    "Companies like ours, working in a regulated environment, need good people in regulatory, clinical, and quality," said Terry Recht, head of staffing at Chiron's biopharm division in Emeryville, CA. "I'm here to support the development of educational programs in these areas, because the long-term view is that this need will not be diminished," she told her BayBio workforce committee colleagues.

    It is clear that Chiron is not alone in seeing a potential disparity between the pool of available biotech workers and the prospective number of future jobs.

    Cora Beth Abel, vp of MassBioEd, a nonprofit spun out of the MassBio industry organization, agrees that these categories are major needs. In the past, MassBio programs have supported workforce development in biomanufacturing and quality. For the Massachusetts and surrounding area biotech cluster, however, the most pressing workforce development needs have been in clinical and project management.

    "We've traditionally seen a great need for people with clinical experience, and that's why we've developed training and outreach to bring more prospects into jobs such as CRAs," says Abel.

    "Project management experience is another critical shortage. Biotech employees, whether in the lab or the executive suite, need this knowledge of how science and business fit together. We've developed workforce training programs to support both of these areas."

    While some of these MassBio programs are run as seminars and workshops from their offices in Cambridge, other programs are run in cooperation with local community colleges such as Middlesex Community College in Bedford and Lowell. It seems that in New England, as in other parts of the country, community colleges are seen as more than a stop-gap measure in the workforce development arena.

  • Role of Community Colleges in Workforce Development

    The BayBio Workforce Com-mittee meeting took place at the J. David Gladstone Research Institute at UCSF, at an event promoting partnerships between bio-industry employers and community colleges.

    Convened by the DC-based Biotechnology Institute, the meeting took place under a grant provided by Gilead Sciences. The Biotechnology Institute, a seven-year-old nonprofit spun out of BIO, first introduced its workforce development outreach activities in the LA-metro area in September 2004.

    "The Biotechnology Industry and Community Colleges of California" meeting brought together over 75 attendees from colleges, universities, biotech companies, and both state and local governments. The consensus was that some workforce shortages, such as those described by Chiron's Recht, will only get worse as the burgeoning industry starts to build more manufacturing capacity in the next few years.

    It was clear to the attendees that community colleges are poised to turn out a substantial number of hands-on trained workers for these new jobs, as well as continue to fill traditional technician jobs in research labs and animal facilities.

    However powerful the presentations by Genentech, Epitomics, and others, it remained clear that there is still a fair amount of miscommunication to be resolved before industry partnerships with community colleges are the norm. One question that came up repeatedly by attendees dealt with the age and maturity of community college graduates.

    Elaine Johnson, Ph.D., erased this concern by describing the average graduates and why they attend the community college. Dr. Johnson is the director of Bio-Link, an NSF-funded national biotech center with associated regional centers in many parts of the country. Bio-Link has been one of the prime forces behind the drive for community colleges to work with industry partners in the development of specific training for biotechnology.

    "There are a lot of misperceptions about the age of community college graduates," said Dr. Johnson. "Companies tend to believe that these schools turn out only young people with two-year degrees. In reality, the average graduate looks at their community college as a place to re-train for the job market.

    "They've already been out in the world of work, and the average age of these graduates gives them the maturity that employers are looking for. And, of course, they come with the hands-on skills to do the job."

    Dr. Johnson added that another great part of community colleges is the word community. The employees that biotech companies find through their local colleges come from the neighborhood. He or she is someone who is committed to residing in the locale, and this often results in a level of stability that employers can't find by importing talent from other regions.

    While many regions and national organizations like the Biotechnology Institute have programs to train science teachers in the K-12 market, some experts believe that the emphasis for workforce development should also take place at a more advanced stage than these early education programs.

  • Workplace Development in the Short Term

    "The kind of workforce development that biotechnology employers need right now wouldn't be educational outreach at the K-12 level, although that will have a desirable long-term effect.

    "Instead, we're talking about a workforce to fill positions that will become critical in the next 23 years," advised Stephen Dahms, Ph.D., BayBio board member and director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology.

    Dr. Dahms is a well-recognized figure nationally on the biotech workforce development front, and has been involved in many of the programs taking place in California.

    Paul Hanle, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Biotechnology Institute, agrees with Dr. Dahms and feels that shorter-term needs can be met effectively by programs already present in community colleges. In addition, the new partnerships his nonprofit is engaged in developing for future educational program development should have a great impact as well.

    "In Northern California, we wanted to showcase the capabilities of community colleges by highlighting examples of biotech firms who have filled many types of positions in their companies with graduates from these schools.

    "The presentations by Genentech and Epitomics were particularly valuable in highlighting biotech programs at local colleges such as Skyline College, City College of San Francisco, and Foothill College," he said. Other success stories from the Biotechnology Institute meetings included Biogen Idec and Baxter Biosciences.

    "Genentech's presentation described many of the advantages employers have found by supplementing four-year degree hires with community college grads," described Dr. Hanle.

    "Often, these companies find that after a short time the Bachelors entry-level person is looking for a way up the ladder and out of that job.

    "This isn't always possible. Certain job categories, particularly in manufacturing, have a flatter organizational structure. Community college people do very well in that environment. They have ambitions as well, but are willing to stay longer in each position."

  • Obstacles Remain

    Despite a great number of potential new workers for biotechnology that may come via the nation's community colleges, obstacles remain in the way.

    "Biotechnology companies tend to automatically insert Minimum requirements BA/BS degree' into their open job requisitions," says Dr. Johnson of Bio-Link.

    "Simply modifying these job specs to include the skills-based experience they need allows a wide range of graduates of these hands-on training programs within the community college network to be valid prospects. This can take an enormous load off the shoulders of these HR people trying to fill a lot of new positions in maturing companies."

    Matt Gardner, president of BayBio, agrees with Dr. Johnson that the needs of companies change as they grow. "Never have we seen so many companies coming on simultaneously to the mature stage," he says. "We've got an entirely new set of challenges in workforce development. It's soon going to be a whole new ballgame."

    "We know by extrapolating the numbers that finding another 8,500 new entrants to our region's life sciences employment market is going to be difficult unless other forces intervene.

    "On top of that, the predicted quantum leap in productivity has come to fruition here. Industry has become much more efficient. Future bottlenecks may not be in the traditional areas of capital requirements or technology. Instead, employers tell us the difficulty will be finding what they need in the employment pool."



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