Manufacturing Workers Find Home in Biotech

By Staff Report

Nov. 29, 2006

Tens of thousands of furniture and textile jobs in North Carolina have succumbed to international competition in recent years.

But putting together a chair or weaving fabric requires workers to perform highly mechanized tasks each day. Those habits can translate to a laboratory setting—and provide a potential path out of unemployment.

“Skilled workers are skilled workers,” says Russ Read, executive director of the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce, located at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “They’re able to cross-train and be effective in a biotech world.”

The center, established in 2004 by a grant from the Department of Labor, is aimed at transforming ex-manufacturing workers into biotechnology research assistants and technicians.

Demand for lab workers is projected to grow by 15 percent to 20 percent annually in the state, which is home to many pharmaceutical, research and diagnostic firms.

Students in the program earn a two-year associate’s degree in applied science in biotechnology. The students range in age from their early 20s to mid-60s. About 67 percent are female.

Classes include biology, chemistry, statistics, introduction to the Internet and technical specialty electives. Each semester, about 120 students start the program. So far, 50 have graduated.

Attrition doesn’t necessarily come in the form of students dropping out altogether. Often, they switch their focus to another health care field, like nursing.

But seeing through a midlife career change takes fortitude. One student entered the biotech program at 56, having been laid off by two electronics companies. After he earned his biotech degree, he went on to work at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University.

“He was very courageous. He persevered,” says Bob Hall, project coordinator at the BioNetwork Pharmaceutical Center in Winston-Salem.

While students have to dig deep within themselves to remain employed in a shifting economy, communities in northwest North Carolina have to collaborate to build the kind of labor pool that will lure high-tech businesses.

In the Piedmont Triad, which encompasses the cities of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro, business, education and government will work together as part of a three-year, $5 million annual federal grant for workforce innovation.

An implementation plan released in September calls for leaders of companies in four clusters—advanced manufacturing, creative enterprises and the arts, health care and logistics/distribution—to outline the skill sets that employees will need. They’re asked to describe how education and training providers throughout the region can deliver those skills.

“A lot of the goals are to break down institutional, geographic and political barriers,” says Don Kirkman, president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership. “We need to think and act regionally.”

Doing so produces results, he says. Dell Inc. announced in 2004 that it was going to build a plant in the region to manufacture computers and servers. Later, the company settled on the exact location—Winston-Salem—for the facility, which now employs 1,100 people, or 400 more jobs than were projected.

“They are a Piedmont Triad company, not just a Winston-Salem or Forsyth County company,” Kirkman says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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