Strengthening Workforce Preparedness and Diversity through Academia-Industry Partnership

The BioHealth Capital Region (BHCR) has been witnessing a strong upward growth trajectory in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for increased research, diagnostic and domestic manufacturing needs in the region. But while workforce needs are in demand, the right skills are in short supply. This skill gap is not stopping companies from starting or growing currently. Still, it will restrict the industry’s growth potential over the next few years unless something is done to remedy the situation. 

With its strategic location to the US capital, the plethora of industries, agencies and regulatory bodies and universities, and excellent quality of living, the BioHealth Capital Region offers many incentives for career-seekers from all across the country. However, the skill gaps in the industry will not be addressed through external recruitment alone. With thousands of new current and predicted job openings, the industry must actively engage with academia and increase training opportunities for prospective employees located within the BioHealth Capital Region itself.

The Maryland Tech Council, the Universities at Shady Grove, and a dynamic panel of industry experts recently convened virtually for a thought-provoking discussion on this subject. The event, titled “Industry Roundtable – Bridging the Life Sciences Workforce Gap” included panelists Brian Stamper (Director of Manufacturing for Kite Pharma), Aaron Vernon (Vice President of Technical Operations for TCR2 Therapeutics), and Molly McGlaughlin (Chief Operating officer for Vigene Biosciences). The session was moderated by Martin Rosendale, (President and CEO of the Maryland Tech Council) and Anne Khademian (Executive Director of the Universities at Shady Grove)

To address the recent boom in bioprocess and cell therapy manufacturing, industries in the region will need to develop a more prepared and skilled workforce. Some of the current in-demand skills include aseptic techniques, automation engineering, and good manufacturing practices (GMP). Advanced degree qualifications will not be a prerequisite for many of the in-demand roles. Indeed, all the industry panelists agreed that for most entry-level manufacturing roles, they are more likely to hire a high school or associate degree holder with relevant industry training over a Ph.D. graduate who had never set foot in a manufacturing facility. 

So how can universities and colleges provide students with training opportunities that can set them up for success? The University System of Maryland, private colleges, and local community colleges offer a unique blend of life science programs and are continually developing innovative degrees, including certification programs.  This is where open communication and strong partnership between academia and industry will be a game-changer.

Firstly, companies within the region should play an active role in curriculum development, so that academic institutes may better align their programs to address the growing needs of the life science industry. The establishment of pipeline programs and apprenticeship opportunities will give students the foundational knowledge and hands-on training required for working in a regulated GMP setup. A few such programs have already been instituted with the Universities at Shady Grove, Montgomery College, and Frederick County College and should be further promoted and expanded. 

Setting up mock GMP facilities or unit operation equipment at educational institutes is another valuable way to increase student engagement. For example, as its facility in Maryland is currently under construction, Kite Pharma has equipped a research lab at Hood College with cell therapy manufacturing equipment. Through this setup, Kite Pharma has been able to train its own staff as well as college students. Even if these students do not become future Kite Pharma employees, their skill set will make them competitive for many other roles within the region.

Bioprocess and cell therapy manufacturing requires strict adherence to GMP guidelines for product compliance and end-use safety, leaving little to no room for error. Thus, the industry must take steps to ramp up GMP training. One well-received suggestion from Aaron was the setting up of ‘GMP simulators’ that operate similarly to simulators used in pilot training. GMP simulators can mimic various real-life scenarios, through which employees can be trained to make accurate and swift decisions regarding equipment operation and manufacture troubleshooting. 

Companies within BHCR must actively engage with and educate students about prospective career opportunities and the requirements for entry-level positions. As industries increase training opportunities for students across various levels of education programs, this will reduce barriers to career entry, resulting in a more diverse workforce. In addition to welcoming employees with a diversity of education,  companies must also strengthen other aspects of diversity to ensure the long-term growth of its workforce. As numerous studies have shown, diversity improves workplace culture and positively impacts the productivity of an organization. 

The landscape of manufacturing and technology will be evolving over the next decade. In preparation, manufacturing facilities are being designed and set up to accommodate future innovations in technology and manufacturing. This adaptability and flexibility will also be required of the workforce, and companies are hiring employees who demonstrate a passion for learning and gaining new training. 

The session provided helpful insights for industry and academia stakeholders and saw active participation from attendees, who provided their own insights and experiences with workforce hiring and retention. Given the positive feedback and enthusiasm from the event, the BioHealth Capital Region can be sure of increased industry-academia partnership in the following months. 

“The opportunity to learn directly from industry leaders about the talent priorities and opportunities in biomanufacturing, in particular, is incredibly valuable for USG as we work with all our partners to bring impactful programming to students for great careers. USG was delighted to partner with the MTC for this important event, and we are excited to work together in our commitment to talent and research development in biotechnology and bioscience going forward.”

Anne Khademian, Executive Director of the Universities at Shady Grove

The event was successful, in many thanks to promotion from industry partners, including Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, City of Gaithersburg Office of Economic Development, BioBuzz, Rockville Economic Development Inc, and Frederick County Office of Economic Development.