New Decade, Old Challenge: BioManufacturing Workforce Development Remains Key to Industry Growth

The BioHealth Capital Region (BHCR) experienced significant change in 2019 that has set the table for an intriguing 2020.

How 2020 plays out across the region is unknown.

However, if you’ve followed BioBuzz throughout the past year, it is abundantly clear that workforce development strategy, investment, and support will be a critical issue for the next decade in the BHCR. In addition to change and growth across more traditional life science sectors, the ascension of personalized medicine within the region, which includes a host of new and growing regenerative medicine, cell therapy, and gene therapy companies, has transformed the region’s workforce needs.

How the region develops its workforce to support traditional life science growth and adjusts—or, for that matter, does not—to the accelerating growth in the cell and gene therapy sector is a big unknown and an even bigger, ongoing challenge. Developing talent for the emerging cell and gene therapy industry is just one piece of the region’s workforce development puzzle, albeit a crucial one.

A cohesive, well-funded workforce development strategy that brings together industry, government, academia and various life science support organizations is essential to retain and attract the talent needed to keep the BHCR healthy and growing. The region has made real progress in talent development; the BHCR has one of the deepest, most skilled and highly educated workforces in the world. However, as science and technology advances, biohealth clusters like the BHCR need to be agile enough to stay ahead of the innovation curve.

Workforce challenges remain to be overcome, including balancing collaboration with competition for talent, expanding the talent pipeline and securing the funding required to support essential workforce development programs across the BHCR.

Competition among companies vying to hire the best talent already in the region and to attract talent from other markets creates an inherent obstacle to executing a collaborative regional workforce strategy. The intense competition for talent is reflected by the increased emphasis and investment in employer branding, employer culture development and increased compensation and benefits packages among life science companies. This is both a national and BHCR trend.

Adopting “A rising tide lifts all ships” approach when it comes to workforce development is imperative to the region’s continued success. The region will need to strike a delicate balance between recruiting competition and executing a cohesive, collaborative regional talent strategy that can benefit the BHCR as a whole. The mechanics of how this can be achieved are not yet known, but a willingness to collaborate was a pervasive theme throughout 2019. An openness articulated by key players at the 2019 MAST Showcase, the BioHealth Capital Region Forum, the Maryland Tech Council’s BIO Innovation Conference, and BioBuzz’s recent Talent Panel, to name just a few instances.

A panel focused on biomanufacturing at the BIO Innovation Conference is just the most recent example of how cell and gene therapy competitors recognize the need for cooperation when it comes to workforce development and talent acquisition.

Chris McDonald, VP of Manufacturing at Kite Pharma reflected the region’s need for workforce collaboration, stating:  “What we need to do in manufacturing is to create a consortium to identify what are the skill sets we need in the future and how can we work together with our universities and community colleges to build this out. It’s not just cell and gene therapy technical resources. If you look at process mechanics, instrument techs and automation engineers a lot of them are getting older and there is not a lot of talent coming behind them. There’s a lot of opportunities for us to develop this talent.”

Aaron Vernon, VP of Engineering and Supply Chain at Autolus, echoed McDonald’s view, stating, “In the end, there’s too much demand and not enough supply of talent. We can all be great places to work but we’ll all be stealing talent from each other until we address this problem…There’s a lot of building going on right now, so we need to cooperate; we need to hit all the local schools and start measuring to see what works and we need to start developing talent earlier. How do you get people that haven’t considered our industry to engage? If we don’t start working on it now it’s going to be a bigger challenge three and five years from now. It’s not a short term fix.”

Developing a pipeline that penetrates deeper into the education system at an earlier stage is another challenge facing the region. The region’s many research universities do an outstanding job developing talent. In addition, outstanding workforce development programs like the University of Maryland College Park’s Biotechnology Education and Resource Program, or BREP, Montgomery College’s BioTrain™ and Bio-TracⓇ programs, and Frederick Community College’s Biotechnology Program, among others, consistently produce valuable technicians for area life science companies.

There is a strong workforce development foundation in place at the university and community college level across the BHCR. What’s needed is a collaborative strategy to make students aware of life science opportunities in high school and even middle school.

“It’s not always a capacity issue, it could be that we have a pipeline issue. If kids in high school don’t know about this industry or appreciate that the industry is approachable—that they don’t have to be a rocket scientist—they will often go into something that they know. This is a great opportunity for this region to work together to pull together an awareness campaign for this group,” stated John Walker, Manufacturers Extension Liaison at NIIMBL (National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals.)

“Howard County Public Schools offer some pre-professional, ‘white-collar VOTECH’ programs. I don’t think we’ve done a great job in this area. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to put our heads together and see how we can engage more at this level across the region,” added Vernon.

The BHCR life science industry is clearly open to working collaboratively on workforce development infrastructure. And developing a deeper talent pipeline is only a realistic goal because of the region’s existing, highly successful talent development ecosystem.

The industry will continue to invest in employer branding and talent acquisition and retention strategies, tactics, and tools because talent is the industry’s lifeblood. Industry support organizations like BioHealth Innovation, TEDCO, and the Maryland Tech Council and others will continue to keep the workforce needs top-of-mind and advocate for new programs and continued support for existing ones. 

But it will take a combination of private and public funding to sustain the existing talent ecosystem and propel the region’s workforce development programming to the next level.

Creating new talent development programs that create life science career awareness earlier in the education cycle, and expanding support and funding for linchpin academic training organizations like BREP, BioTrain, Bio-Trac, and FCC’s biotechnology program, among others, is essential to building both executive-level talent and the technical biomanufacturing workforce that could make the BHCR a life science juggernaut for years to come.       

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