On her first day growing cells for the biobased chemical company Zymergen in 2019, Edin Rimando-McKeel wore a jacket she got from her old employer, the biotechnology firm Genentech.
Both companies have operations in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Genentech’s name was familiar to many of her new colleagues. The logo on her jacket helped Rimando-McKeel reconnect with people she worked with at Genentech who had since migrated to Zymergen. “It’s a small world if you stay local,” she says. “Everyone’s connected.”
There are biomanufacturing training programs across the US. Here are snapshots of a few.
▸ School: City College of San Francisco
▸ Location: San Francisco
▸ Highlight: Students in the biotechnology program at Abraham Lincoln High School can simultaneously take college-level biotech classes at City College.
▸ School: Durham Technical Community College
▸ Location: Durham, North Carolina
▸ Highlight: Last year, Durham Tech hosted a free, 8-week biomanufacturing certificate course for military service members, veterans, or their spouses. Drugmakers Pfizer and Merck & Co. recruited some of the graduates.
▸ School: Laney College
▸ Location: Oakland, California
▸ Highlight: In 2020, biotechnology students at Laney received lab kits so they could continue biomanufacturing training at home during the pandemic. Now lectures are online, and labs take place in person.
▸ School: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
▸ Location: Baltimore
▸ Highlight: In January, the university received a $900,000 grant to develop a short-term biomanufacturing training program, which is expected to launch in 2023.
Rimando-McKeel’s experience is a window into a broader problem for the business of using biology to make chemicals and other materials. Companies have been racking up victories on R&D and business fronts and moving technologies from research labs to commercial-scale production facilities. But industry leaders say they can’t hire enough technicians to operate the cell-growing machinery on the floors of those plants.
“We end up stealing people from other companies, or you train them in-house,” says Jay Keasling, a University of California, Berkeley, chemical engineer and the founder of several synthetic biology companies. “We need a lot more training in this area.”
Over the past year, private companies, industry groups, and academic institutions have made a concerted effort to expand the pool of qualified biotechnicians. Established companies have embraced apprenticeships as a way to train workers, while community colleges have launched degree programs and weeks-long boot camps. But even with those efforts, many companies say more training is needed to avoid a major bottleneck in the years ahead.
In December, Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks decided to take matters into its own hands, announcing it would offer funding, equipment, and technical support to help Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology set up an associate’s degree program focused on biotechnology manufacturing.
Lily Fitzgerald, who leads policy and partnerships at Ginkgo, says the program, which is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2023, will help Ginkgo find workers who can run fermentation tanks, monitor growing cells, and sequence DNA. The company expects to hire dozens of people for those positions over the next few years.
“We spend a lot of our time doing recruitment and hiring. We would love for that process to be easier,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s absolutely a motivation for this partnership. But even more importantly, we’re looking to the future. We’re looking 10 to 20 years from now. How are we going to build a booming bioeconomy? . . . We’re going to need a lot of people trained.”
According to a 2021 report from Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd), an industry group that supports workforce development for the state’s life sciences industry, Massachusetts will add at least 20,000 life sciences jobs by the end of 2024, a 23% increase from 2020. The added jobs include high-level research positions, corporate roles, and on-the-ground manufacturing jobs. Biological technicians earn about $49,000 per year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in biotech hubs like Boston or San Francisco they can earn close to $60,000 annually.
The life sciences industry in Massachusetts has a high concentration of R&D jobs, but there is also a real need for workers on the biomanufacturing plant floor, says Karla Talanian, senior director of MassBioEd’s Life Sciences Apprenticeship Program. She started the program last year to meet those needs. “There’s very few training opportunities for people to get a foot in the door,” Talanian says.
The program offers people 4 months of academic instruction and a year of on-the-job training at a biotech company. Talanian says the first phase was so successful she’s hoping to triple its size by starting cohorts in March, April, and May. Many of the MassBioEd apprenticeships are with drugmakers, but Ginkgo may participate in 2022.
Fitzgerald says Ginkgo sees community colleges and apprenticeship programs as a way to make the biotech workforce more diverse. She says the current talent pipeline is skewed toward White candidates, who may find it easier to spend thousands of dollars and 4 years to get a bachelor’s degree. In November, Ginkgo’s chief operating officer, Reshma Shetty, sent a similar message to the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
“Growing and diversifying the workforce needs to be prioritized,” Shetty wrote in prepared remarks to the council. “Many biomanufacturing roles can be filled by individuals with associates degrees or even certificates, which are far more accessible training requirements.”
Brad Sibbald, vice president of the science and clinical division of the staffing agency Kelly Services, says his company placed about 5,000 operators in biomanufacturing roles last year, a big increase over 2020.
“The job market is the craziest we’ve ever seen,” he says. “It should not be hard for people to get a job in this space right now.”
What is hard is finding workers to fill those roles. Sibbald says high school students who are excited about science, especially students from underrepresented groups that might not normally consider a career in biotech, are an untapped source of those workers. He wants companies to make it easier for such students to go directly into associate’s-level training programs by making sure students are aware of training opportunities and paying for their tuition. Sibbald says it’s also important for companies to stay connected to community college programs by giving funds and equipment, as well as providing feedback on which skills they’re looking for. “They will be creating a grassroots campaign to funnel talent their way,” he says.
The biobased chemical industry group BioMADE, a public-private partnership launched last year with $87.5 million from the Department of Defense and $180 million from member organizations, is trying to create those connections. Last year, the group’s workforce arm doled out $4 million to support community colleges and other biotechnology training programs. “We’re gearing up to make some massive progress,” Chief Workforce Development Officer Thomas Tubon says.
Jim DeKloe, the founder of one of the first biomanufacturing training programs in the US, at Solano Community College in the Bay Area, says he wants to see more training in places that haven’t yet benefited from biomanufacturing’s boom. He says the proximity to biological feedstocks like corn and soybeans should make the Midwest and the South good locations for future biomanufacturing plants.
The trick will be making sure there’s homegrown talent to staff those facilities, as recruiting workers from other regions can be costly. DeKloe is working with BioMADE to provide 20 community colleges with basic equipment so students can learn the skills needed to monitor cells and operate bioreactors. He hopes to place that equipment in places like Appalachia, California’s Central Valley, and the Midwest.
The industrial biotech company Novozymes, which has manufacturing locations in North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, is already having trouble finding biomanufacturing workers in the Midwest. The company is spending $300 million to expand its site in Blair, Nebraska, and will need to hire 50 to 100 employees over the next few years.
Vanderlei Casagrande Bellettini, Novozymes’s vice president of operations for the Americas, says hiring is relatively easy in North Carolina, thanks in part to the state’s strong network of universities. It’s more difficult in Nebraska, where residents often leave to get an education and don’t return. He says it can take 6 months to 1 year of on-the-job training before new workers really understand the job. “We get good people there, but they don’t have knowledge about biomanufacturing,” he says.
Sandra Porter, a biotechnology educator who has worked with InnovATEBIO National Center for Biotechnology Education, a project that aims to increase training opportunities for biotechnicians, says it’s possible to train people faster. Many community colleges are now offering intense boot camps that last weeks instead of years, she says. Montgomery College and Frederick Community College, both in Maryland, launched weeks-long biotech boot camps in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Graduates usually leave with a certificate and the laboratory skills that employers are looking for, such as moving cells without contaminating them and donning gear needed to work in a sterile environment. “Universities don’t teach those skills,” Porter says. “They’re more geared towards preparing students for graduate school.”
A 10-week long certificate program is how Rimando-McKeel broke into the biotechnology industry. She completed a free certificate course with DeKloe at Solano Community College in the summer of 2013. Within 2 months she landed the job at Genentech. Rimando-McKeel had a bachelor’s degree in physics, but at Genentech she worked with private investigators, comparative literature majors, and others without a traditional science background.
“You just learned the job by doing it,” she says. “Some people might have a biology background, but I really don’t think that’s necessary.”
After a few years working at Genentech, her training and experience made Rimando-McKeel the kind of employee that biomanufacturers covet. She says it’s easy for employees like her to jump between jobs—and they often do, searching for the best opportunity.
Companies are trying to strengthen their hiring pipelines to replace employees who leave, but those efforts take a long time to pay off. DeKloe warns that the industry risks starting too late to head off a labor crunch. “How do you ramp up a program for any emerging industry?” he says. “You have to start before the crisis is upon us.”
This story was updated on Feb. 8, 2022, to correct the description of a Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation workforce training program. It is an apprenticeship, not an internship.