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Insight & Intelligence™ : Oct 30, 2013

Improving Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Programs

The demand for technicians and managers with expertise and skills in biomanufacturing is far-reaching.
  • Vicki Glaser

The bioeconomy comprises more than 2% of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), led by the industrial biotechnology sub-sector, which accounted for at least $115 billion in US 2010 revenues.1 While other sub-sectors of the bioeconomy continue their rapid growth—including genetically modified crops, with 2010 revenues of nearly $110 billion, and biopharmaceuticals, which brought in about $75 billion in 2010—industrial biotechnology, which encompasses biobased fuels, materials, and chemicals, as well as industrial enzymes, has experienced the most rapid growth in the bioeconomy and is likely to continue this trend.1 This scenario extends beyond the US and is evident in developing and developed countries.2

In the US, California is an example of how growth in industrial biotechnology is impacting the bioeconomy. Employment in the industrial biotechnology sector in California increased by 632% from 2006–2011, according to a survey conducted by the northern and southern California biotechnology trade organizations, BayBio and BIOCOM, respectively. Baseline figures were admittedly low, with 18 of the 33 companies participating in the survey reporting zero employees in 2006. But that does not diminish the substantial growth among this group of 18 fledgling companies to a total of 3,254 jobs 5 years later. The other 15 more established companies surveyed reported a total workforce increase of 75% over the 5-year period.

Growth of the biofuels and biobased chemicals and materials industries is escalating and accelerating, even if not at the pace or degree initially projected or hoped for. This year has seen the emergence of the first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefineries. KiOR (Pasadena, TX) announced the initial shipments of cellulosic diesel from its first commercial-scale facility in Columbus, MS, in March. INEOS Bio (Rolle, Switzerland) announced the start of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production from vegetative and wood waste at its Indian River Bioenergy Center near Vero Beach, FL, in July. Beta Renewables (Tortona, Italy) commissioned its 13-million gallons per year (increasing to 20 million gallons per year) cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino, Italy, and DuPont (Wilmingon, DE) broke ground on a $200 million, 30-million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, IA, expected to be operational by mid- to late 2014.

Large-scale biobased chemicals facilities continue to make news as they commence operations, and multi-million dollar deals signal that the big players in the chemicals industry are serious about investing in biotechnology innovation. Examples of the activity and building momentum in the biobased products sector abound. In May, BASF (Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany) announced plans to produce renewable 1,4-butanediol using the patented, fermentation-based process of Genomatica (San Diego, CA). Myriant (Quincy, MA) initiated commercial-scale production of bio-succinic acid at its Lake Providence, LA plant in June, while Gevo (Englewood, CO), which produces bio-isobutanol at commercial scale, opened a demonstration-scale facility for manufacturing paraxylene, a building block for plastic bottles, polyester, films, and fibers, in August.

The US could replace about 20% of its petrochemical consumption with biobased products during the next 10 years, “and in doing so capture a significant portion of the global renewable chemical market,” according to a Milken Institute (Santa Monica, CA) report.3 The global market for biobased chemicals is estimated to grow from its current $3.6 billion to more than $12 billion by 2021, projects Rennovia (Menlo Park, CA), a producer of renewable adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine, building blocks for making biobased nylon and polyurethanes.4 Production capacity of biobased polymers will triple from 3.5 million tonnes in 2011 to nearly 12 million tonnes in 2020, predicts nova-Institute (Hürth, Germany).5

Biomanufacturing is one of the key areas of technology identified by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP)—established by the Obama Administration in June 2011—as being important for future competitiveness in the manufacturing sector and as an appropriate target for public-private investment to support advances in manufacturing.6 The AMP is led by a steering committee that operates within the framework of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In July 2012, the AMP steering committee delivered a report entitled “Capturing a Domestic Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing,” which included the component “Education and Workforce Development Workstream Report.”6 The Executive Summary states the following:

For the United States to remain a competitive force on the world stage, talented employees who have a high level of technical skill are needed to revitalize, sustain, and improve U.S. manufacturing.…To attract a robust and highly skilled workforce, the image of manufacturing must change from offering low job security and dull, dirty, and dangerous work to being exciting, engaging, essential, and environmentally sustainable. The same cohesive message from the government, educational institutions, and private industry is needed to change this perception.

An equally important need is for some modification to traditional teaching methods used to train the manufacturing workforce at all levels of education. Success in advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship will require a workforce with fundamental science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and broad problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, and people skills that do not emerge from a conventional K-12 education. We encourage adoption of Project-Based Learning (PBL) methods in upper K-12 and in community college programs in manufacturing, with some projects selected for their relevance to manufacturing-relevant skills… To stimulate these new educational initiatives, educational partnerships between industry, academia, and local and regional governments must be established.

The report points to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program as a successful model for the approximately 1,500 community colleges in the US to develop “location-specific curricula to meet the needs of local and regional manufacturers.” Community college-based ATE centers and projects operate in partnership with universities, secondary schools, industry, and government agencies to design and carry out model workforce development initiatives. Educational programs and opportunities available through community colleges “are critical for training the next-generation advanced manufacturing workforce,” the report states.

At the college and university level, the steering committee surveyed six universities and found that none had an undergraduate degree in manufacturing, but several had at least one program at the graduate level. “Many baccalaureate-level engineering degree programs in 4-year colleges and universities have very little in the way of manufacturing science and technology content in their curricula,” the committee reported. Furthermore, “universities have not learned where manufacturing best fits in academia. It does not fit well into normal boundaries of degree programs, departments, or even schools and, as a result is often marginalized. Also, typical research university interactions with industry are with R&D and not manufacturing organizations.”

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