Biotechnology Industry Gets A Boost From Community College Degrees


By Shalin Jyotishi Contributor to Forbes.  Read the original article here.

A university isn’t the only place to start a career in biotechnology—community colleges are stepping up to respond workforce needs through new bachelor’s degrees programs.

Research supported by Joyce Foundation and Ascendium Education Group at the think-tank New America found that twenty-five U.S. states allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, a departure from their historical roots offering associate degrees that lead to transfer to a 4-year university where students would complete a bachelor’s degree. This development is helping community colleges meet the biotechnology industry’s manufacturing needs in a subfield called biomanufacturing.

Most community college baccalaureates are offered in traditional fields such as business, education, and healthcare, but MiraCosta College in San Diego has launched the nation’s very first community college biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree to meet the workforce needs of Fortune 500 biotechnology giants like Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, and Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“Most university degree programs focus on the research side. We wanted to offer a degree in the production side which didn’t exist anywhere else, and, locally, there was a need in the industry,” Mike Fino, MiraCosta’s Dean of Mathematics and Sciences, who spearheaded the program, told me.

MiraCosta’s degree launched in 2014 after California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 850 to permit a pilot cohort of community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees provided they addressed a concrete need and weren’t competing with university programs.

To avoid conflict, Fino asked nearby California State University-San Marcos if they would modify their own biotechnology bachelor’s degree program to meet the manufacturing needs of employers. If so, MiraCosta would back down, but the university felt that its expertise was better suited for engineering and science training in the industry, freeing up MiraCosta College to proceed.

MiraCosta College surveyed alumni who earned associate degrees in biomanufacturing to see if graduates saw value in an advanced credential. They surveyed employers who hired MiraCosta graduates to ensure that the bachelor's degree would be useful–the answer from both groups was, “yes.”

So far, nearly a hundred graduates have landed jobs with sixty biotechnology employers in the region. The program boasts an impressive 93 percent completion rate, and employers have put skin in the game too. Genentech has donated equipment and student scholarships. ThermoFisher and MilliporeSigma donated equipment, supplies and host interns. Many major biomaufacturing employers sit on the program’s advisory board.

The degree is also diversifying the field. According to Biocom California, California’s life science sector has a stubborn challenge with diversity, but 62 percent of MiraCosta’s graduates are female and 64 percent non-white. Those numbers beat national averages of 49 percent female and 38 percent non-white workers in biotechnology industry according to a Biotechnology Industry Organization report published in June.

Why Community College Bachelor’s Degree?
Community colleges typically meet biomanufacturing workforce needs through non-degree credentials or associate degree programs, focused on the technician workforce, while universities have met research and engineering needs through undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

So why do biotech companies want community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees?

MiraCosta already had a successful associate degree program in biomanufacturing, but Fino told me that local employers were looking for manufacturing workers to have a stronger theoretical understanding of biomanufacturing. That way, when something inevitably needs correcting on the factory floor, workers can independently assess and fix the problem.

“[MiraCosta]’s program is very different from university programs. We have found that universities are not as willing to flex. Not as willing to hear industry and what they’re looking for. Universities have some advantages like a lot more money, but they choose to place more emphasis on their traditional structure,” Kathleen Bigelow-Houck, Senior Director and Head of Quality Assurance Operations at Genentech, told me in an interview.

Bigelow-Houch, who serves on MiraCosta’s advisory committee and has taught in MiraCosta’s program herself, said MiraCosta’s hands-on approach, willingness to co-create the program with industry partners, and invite guest instructors from industry is what makes community colleges and their new bachelor’s degrees well positioned to meet biotech workforce needs. MiraCosta’s ability to diversify the industry was also a key selling point for Genentech which has hired dozens of graduates.

A mother of four, Kellee Ramirez completed her degree two years ago and is already a Quality Control Manager at Gallant. Like Bigelow-Houck, Ramirez felt that community college bachelor’s degree offered something unique compared to university options.

MiraCosta's class timings and frequency were designed for working adults in mind. The smaller class sizes felt more intimate compared to the university setting, on-site and the cost was much more managing for a student with caregiving responsibilities. Ramirez also appreciated how far MiraCosta would go to make underrepresented students feel welcome, "They told us that someone has to get that job, why not you? I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for MiraCosta,” she told me.

Kellee's former employer, Cellipont, was so impressed by the quality of MiraCosta’s bachelor’s degree graduates that the company changed its recruiting strategy to hire more graduates.

White House Promotes New Pathways to Emerging Technology Jobs in Biotechnology
The White House has stepped up its effort to promote workforce training for emerging technology jobs like in biotechnology, and more community colleges could be empowered to follow in MiraCosta’s footsteps.

In September, President Biden signed an Executive Order to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative aimed at supporting the industry with an explicit emphasis on expanding community college-level workforce pathways into biotechnology jobs.

MiraCosta isn’t the only community college using degrees to respond to the emerging technology workforce. MiraCosta’s program is now being replicated by other California community colleges including Solano College with others expected to be approved shortly. Speaking on a panel at Sigma Xi's iFore Conference last weekend in Virginia, Dominique Carter, Assistant Director for Agricultural Sciences, Innovation, and Workforce in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, cited another example of St. Louis Community College responding to St. Louis-based MilliporeSigma's workforce needs by launching a biotechnology associate degree program.

Miami Dade College is launching a new bachelor’s degree program in applied AI which follows several successful AI programs at the associate degree and certificate level.

Last month, the Biden Administration launched the Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program to expand emerging technology workforce training through internships, apprenticeships, and co-op experiences, including in biotechnology. During an informational webinar NSF officials said that community colleges are not just eligible but encouraged to apply for the $30 million available in grant funding.

MiraCosta itself is part of the U.S. Commerce Department-sponsored National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), part of the federally initiated network of ManufacturingUSA Institutes which promote R&D and workforce innovation across manufacturing.

So far MiraCosta’s degree has filled traditional biomanufacturing jobs with students obtaining positions as manufacturing associates, quality technicians, and biological production technicians and some alumni have even gotten promoted into more senior roles like quality control managers, product engineers, and manufacturing team leads.

However, the program is also expanding pathways for new emerging jobs born out of emerging technologies like gene editing. Graduates have found work in cell and gene therapy jobs at employers like Kite Pharma.

Emerging trends in biotechnology is a required class for the degree, “that was a class that all of us students were really excited for,” Ramirez told me—the class is used as a reference for Ramirez’s employer to stay current on the latest in the industry. “I fully believe that MiraCosta students could fill the gene therapy niche of the industry,” Bigelow-Houck affirmed.

As the Biden Administration seeks to boost economic opportunity in the biotechnology sector, community college degree programs might be exactly what employers need.

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