Training must keep pace with biotech industry By John Grady The biotechnology industry is booming, but a properly trained workforce is required to keep it rolling, according to biotechnology leaders. Producing those skilled workers is both a challenge and an opportunity for community colleges. That was the main topic of a panel discussion hosted Feb. 2 by the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce at the Piedmont Triad Research Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. The public generally knows the benefits of the growing biotechnology field, from curing diseases to producing cleaner-burning fuels. But finding the workers to train for theses jobs is difficult. To get more people interested in biotechnology as a career and to train them for this high-growth industry, the National Center for Biotechnology Workforce was created in 2004 with a $5 million grant from the U. S. Department of Labor. The center is composed of five community colleges with specific focuses in key geographic areas. “Community colleges are a natural fit in the development of our bio-based world. They are focused on delivering quality technical training quickly to students and jobseekers,” said Russ Read, the national center’s executive director and the organizer of the event. Bringing representatives of the center’s community colleges in New Hampshire, Iowa and California together with North Carolina leaders reinforced the center’s goals. Susan Seymour, director of the North Carolina Community College System’s BioNetwork, said that short-term courses at community colleges are already helping state residents land good-paying jobs in the field. She added that over the next three years the biotechnology industry in the state will need 6,000 more workers. Currently, the field is an $8 billion industry in North Carolina, with 150 companies employing more than 35,000 people. As the industry evolves from research into “biomanufacturing,” it will require more workers, industry experts said. Those jobs don’t necessarily requires a four-year degree. “At least 67 percent of biomanufacturing employees will have less than a bachelor’s degree,” Seymour said. Allowing two-year colleges to provide the training decreases company time required to do the training and increases productivity and profitability, she added. Biotechnology is not limited to the East Coast. “We have 500 biotech companies in our county alone, and we need more new workers now, 24/7,” said Ric Matthews, director of the National Center for Expertise in Bioprocessing Training and a dean at Mira Costa College (California). The courses his college provides, using its new training facility, help students fill those positions, he said. Matthews said the key to producing qualified workers is finding a supportive industry partner. For example, the bioprocessing company Idec was building a new manufacturing plant near Mira Costa. Knowing how valuable community colleges are to training workers, the company started a partnership with the college. The ties remain, even after Idec was acquired by industry giant Genentech, Matthews said. “They continue to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars in support, in-kind service and equipment,” he said. Officials from other centers around the country also emphasized the benefits of partnering with industry. The New Hampshire Biotechnology Education and Training Center’s industry partners helped it build state-of-the-art laboratories that allow students to learn in a virtual workplace. And it’s yielded results. The program is scaling up, attracting more students and offering apprenticeships. “We train well,” said Sonia Wallman, director of the National Center for Expertise in Biomanufacturing Training and director of the New Hampshire Community Technical College biotechnology program. “Once a company calls for one of our students, they come back for more.” This article appeared in the Feb. 14 edition of the Community College Times.