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How States Can Foster and Expand Biotech Industry Development

This is the first of three articles on workforce development and quality jobs that focuses on the full spectrum of academic and on-site training needs of the bioscience industry in the US. Read part two. Read part three.

Until a decade ago, the United States was the undisputed leader in bioscience industry development. However, a variety of factors such as low cost labor, speed of information dissemination, and available risk capital, has rapidly increased global competition for the industry. Europe and Asia, for example, are actively promoting opportunities for bioscience companies.

In the United States, local and national government leaders continue to understand this new dynamic of increased competition for developing the biosciences and are actively working to develop and promote to grow the industry within their states.

In this global economy, nearly every competitor has access to big breakthroughs in technology and to the equipment and capital to produce standardized products, but those regions that possess the human capital, with its insights, competencies, and experience will have the competitive advantage.

Attracting and retaining a continuing flow of educated (Ph.D., MS, BS, AA) and technically proficient workers is essential to a state aspiring to enhance bioscience industry presence.  The creation of two-year associate degree programs, changes in curricula in colleges and universities to better reflect workforce needs, outreach to industry for specialized on-site training have all strengthened the communication for industry development in all areas of company development.

There are several examples of what states are doing in the form of initiatives and legislation to support workforce development in this technology sector:

  • Oregon’s legislature provides funding to Portland Community College’s Biotechnology Technician Program that focuses on the techniques of laboratory technicians for QA and QC positions.
  • New Jersey provides a large corporate tax credit for two years to companies that hire qualified community college graduates.
  • Arkansas offers tax credits to employers for expenses incurred in training a biotechnology workforce.
  • The Kansas Economic Growth Act that includes $500 million currently being invested over a period of 15 years in the Emerging Industry Investment Fund, which utilizes the growth of the state tax base associated with the state’s bioscience industry, research institutions and community colleges to provide the major funding source of the Bioscience Initiative Roadmap. The roadmap supports efforts in university research and manufacturing techniques in community colleges.
  • The Illinois Biotechnology/Bioscience Training Investment Program (BioTIP) assists in encouraging graduate students to work part-time in biotech/bioscience positions. BioTIP provides grants to companies to help cover training costs for students who find part-time employment as lab technicians/engineers in the biotech arena and provide essential training to students to enhance their practical skills.
  • The Massachusetts Biotechnology Center’s BioTeach Initiative is designed to provide biotech lab equipment, lab supplies, and recurring teacher training to Massachusetts’s public high schools.
  • Georgia and North Carolina are emerging as growing states in our industry. The Georgia Research Alliance focuses on investments strategies, and North Carolina’s community colleges through their BTECH effort funded by tobacco settlement funds are focused on biomanufacturing and vaccines production and graduate 2,000-plus students each year.
  • And the State of Washington is increasingly strong with public private funding for bioscience internships sponsored by companies like Amgen, and Dendreon.

Cities and counties are also reaching out to partnerships to encourage company creation, expansion, and attraction with workforce as a central theme of company success. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In Georgia, The Innovation Crescent, a 13-county region spanning Atlanta to Athens, receives a grant from the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development Work Ready Regions program to sustain its workforce development strategies for the life sciences industry. The funding assists with continued efforts to enhance life sciences career pathways from high school to technical colleges to universities; eliminate the skills gap using Work Ready Certificates and Work Ready job profiling.
  • Baltimore’s Bioscience Initiative looks at workforce development structures within larger multi-purpose initiatives. The overall focus of the initiative is three-fold: Grow the Demandadd value to employers and integrate Bio Education.

The first objective, Grow the Demand, includes venture financing, marketing the region to potential new employers, and building the collaborations to increase synergy among members of the bioscience sector.

The Add Value to Employers objective involves community based workforce development efforts designed to identify and prepare low skill workers and to guide them into employment situations in the bioscience sector. 

The third Integrate Bio Education objective focuses on enhancing the science elements of K-12 education in order to increase the supply of future technicians and scientists needed for their future aspirations.

Finally here are five imperatives needed by partners in education, policy and industry to prepare students for the workplace in our industry:

#1) Industry involvement is absolutely essential. This is perhaps the most universally held success factor found across programs in the best practices states. As one program director explained: “Because they work so closely with industry, the students are trained exactly as industry needs them.” The disconnect between bioscience employers and educational institutions in sharing information, setting priorities, and developing needed programs continues to be an issue.

#2 A broad and diverse range of students must be trained.  Building an effective educational pipeline for the biosciences requires both traditional community college to 4 year degree program linkages as well as continuing education courses for those who have already having earned an associate’s degree in the biosciences and looking to advance their careers with additional coursework.

In addition, limited awareness by communities-particularly school-age youth and those seeking new careers- of the opportunities to pursue bioscience careers, and a need for proactive steps to increase access to these career opportunities, especially in minority populations needs to be addressed by both industry and educators.

#3) Challenges in developing curricula for bioscience workforce and career development. Unlike IT certification, biotech lab technicians, biomanufacturing, agricultural biotech, and biomedical engineering lack national certifications.  Given the lack of standardization in defining skills and techniques, it is important to have resources available to support continual development of curricula.

#4 Difficulties in experiential learning and internships are real.  For bioscience positions, it is often difficult to place students in traditional internship programs because of regulatory requirements and the size of companies.  Other approaches to experiential learning and exposure to industry need to be developed, such as having industry instructors, creating pilot facilities, and focusing on capstone projects. 

#5) Lack of statewide coordination wastes resources.  A patchwork of programmatic efforts with little scale or strategic focus makes it difficult to gain resources to support the growth of needed programs.  Those states that have a roadmap and funding to support efforts will be the place where companies will want to locate.