Collaboration between schools and industry gives NC a biotech training advantage
By collaborating with local industry, North Carolina's life sciences training programs prepare job-ready workers for careers at life sciences companies.Posted — Updated
Whether the scientific innovation takes the form of vaccines, gene therapy, or agricultural technology, the life sciences aim to improve the quality of life for people around the world. For those interested in joining an industry with global impacts, North Carolina's statewide training programs are ready to prepare the next generation of biotechnology workers for the sector's ample career opportunities.
The state's rich life sciences ecosystem can largely be credited to the area positioning itself as a hub for technology as early as the 1980s, sourcing a workforce from the community colleges, colleges, and universities scattered across the state.
"North Carolina has always been a magnet to major corporations, but at the same time, we have a successful university system — so what happens is we generate a lot of startups. We have access to intellectual property and capital, so from a startup perspective, those are two things you really need," said Russ Read, executive director of National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce at Forsyth Tech. "The third component, which is extremely important, is you need to have highly skilled people. North Carolina has this very strong ecosystem that's probably the envy of most of the other states across the country, and even the world."
Thanks to the collaboration between the university system and industry, the state is able to create a united front, training up a workforce, then connecting them directly to career opportunities.
Because a wide variety of companies are located in North Carolina, the industry is in need of skills across the board, from pharmaceutical manufacturing to medical research to agricultural biotech.
"The state has really developed a strategy to make North Carolina a biotech center. Each region is becoming very strong," said Read. "Most recently, we've seen a lot of gene and cell therapy companies come into the Triangle, and the reason why they chose this area was because of the workforce. Other than the natural beauty of North Carolina and the existing biotech ecosystem, you'll see that whenever a company expands in North Carolina, it's because of the availability of a highly skilled workforce."
With a market ripe with opportunity, schools and programs across the state have responded by developing ample training opportunities for those interested in joining the workforce. While some biotech positions may require a specific college degree, there are still many careers available to those who have completed the proper training programs.
At North Carolina Central University, the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise, or BRITE, offers workforce development and research opportunities for those interested in the field. Through the program, students are able to receive hands-on instruction from BRITE faculty and real-world job experience through participation in private sector and academic internships.
"We have a support structure in place that helps the students get used to working in the STEM field — because they don't always have a great STEM background when they get in here. With this in mind, we position them to transition into the program so they can excel during their four years," said Hernan Navarro, director of the BRITE Initiative. "In order to do this, we have dedicated research scientists in the labs who work closely with our students. We also have staff in BRITE that prepare our students in the practical aspects of entering the job market such as resume development and mock interviews, so that when they do go out and interview, they can put their best foot forward."
In addition to the coursework, students in the BRITE program are also able to complete summer internships at biomanufacturing companies and labs at local universities. While the initiative gets its namesake from the biomanufacturing industry, the training offered through the program covers a wide array of sectors, from gene therapy to basic and applied sciences..
In order to uniquely equip students for North Carolina's rich biotechnology scene, the BRITE program caters training to specific local industries. For example, NCCU recently added a clinical research science program in response to growth in companies around the region.
Even without an in-depth biotech background, there are still plenty of training and career opportunities around the state.
"With any field, when you're trying to recruit people, you focus on the company's product, and you don't really talk about all the things that go into making that product possible. When you go to a pharmacy to get a vial of pills, there's a huge network of people out there who led to that pill getting there — it's not just scientists in the lab," said Navarro. "The universities and BRITE in particular have excellent relationships with the local industries here, and our advisory committee is composed of academic and industrial partners that actively help guide what we teach the students. If your goal is to have marketable students, you want to make sure that they're learning what the market wants."
Whether going through college first or not, individuals will likely have to complete some training requirements before they join the biotech workforce. In Read's role at NCBW, he and the rest of the advisory committee help set training standards within the industry on a nationwide scale. In doing so, the organization is able to better understand what employers are looking for and subsequently train future employees in those skill sets.
For those interested in beginning their biotech career, Read recommends first getting training from a technical school or university. From there, there are plenty of resources, like NCBiotech, N.C. BioNetwork, and NCBioImpact that can help connect individuals to further training and career opportunities.
"We're in the process of trying to upgrade how we efficiently educate and train the workforce. The great news is that North Carolina is extremely well-represented at the national level through our center, so we really understand what the employer wants our technical workers to know," said Read. "It isn't necessary to have a science degree for this industry. We have people who are doing commercial work, people working in legal aspects, people on the production side — there's literally a huge basket of jobs available in the industry."
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