The biotech industry is ramping up production. In some states, like North Carolina, companies are talking about hiring 100's of people, and maybe as many as 5000, total. On the one hand, this is great news for the industry and for biotech education programs. On the other hand, for biotech programs that graduate fewer than twenty students a year, this increased demand might prove too much of a good thing. If the community college biotech programs are unable to meet industry demand, industry might look elsewhere.
Montgomery College, in Germantown, Maryland, has found an innovative solution for ramping up biotech workforce education. WorkSource Montgomery provided funding for the college to offer a free, four-week biotechnology boot camp to train displaced workers for entry-level biomanufacturing jobs. The training program targeted displaced hospitality workers and others who lost jobs because of the pandemic.
The bootcamp only ended a few weeks ago, but according to Dr. Collins Jones, biotechnology program coordinator, all 11 participants have already been scheduled for job interviews, with 4 having already interviewed and received job offers. Two have accepted and are starting to work full-time. Jones says the most urgent need for workers is in vaccine manufacturing, where companies need to work quickly to battle COVID-19, but the need for workers in this industry was an issue even before the pandemic.
“We are starting to hit a level of maturity in the companies. It takes a biotech company 10 to 20 years to get to the point where it’s at the manufacturing stage of a product. Now there are multiple companies that are doing that and they all need employees,” Dr. Jones said. The longstanding biotechnology credit program at the College has put about 300 people to work in the past 15 years, but now demand has taken off. MC has taken the most crucial aspects of the credit curriculum, worked with some of the local biotech companies, and created the boot camp.
This training provides entry-level skills such as making solutions, environmental monitoring, and basic aseptic technique for cell culture processes. “These are essential jobs that have to be done as part of the production process of a vaccine or an antibody to treat cancer,” Dr. Jones said. “But once candidates get a foot in the door, biotech is a career and there is ample opportunity for upward mobility,” he said.
Thinking long term, Jones said, “These are lifelong jobs, these are not going to disappear. Many of these biotech jobs were here, the pandemic just accelerated the need. A lot of companies shifted gears. They were making drugs to treat cancer, but now they need to make the vaccine. Once the vaccine is made, they’ll go back to making drugs to treat cancer.”
Once the first cohort starts working, the College will ask for feedback from their employers. This guidance will enable the College to continuously improve the curriculum to meet the ever-changing needs of the industry.
The College is planning more training later this year. “My hope is we are going to run as many of these as we can until either we fulfill the needs of the industry or we run out of people,” Dr. Jones said. “Based on how fast this industry is growing, I’m not sure which is going to come first.”