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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Workers Being Retrained to Meet Burgeoning Biotech

In January, dozens of former aerospace engineers started 200 hours of training at College of the Canyons, studying medical science, laboratory practices, new software skills and other training to help turn them into biomedical device engineers. By the time they leave in April, they may be taking jobs designing new insulin pumps in the Valley. Dena Maloney, the Dean of Economic Development at the college, says the program is one of several statewide that gives people a chance to enter a growth field and provides a new crop of local workers to biotech companies. At the SoCalBio Education & Workforce Symposium earlier this month, Maloney told a gathering of employers and educators they don’t need to look far to fill open positions. “When they complete (the program) in April, they will have gotten 200 hours of solid education built up on their existing engineering skills, and they’ll be very competitive for positions within your companies,” Maloney said. State and local officials have been stepping in front of each other to promise to bring biotech jobs to Los Angeles. James Hahn has promised free downtown office space to biotech firms, and his mayoral opponent Antonio Villaraigosa earlier this month announced he was helping create a joint powers initiative to build a biotech campus in the city. Experts predict that the big money in the healthcare world is going to be generated by drug discovery and development firms, but Ahmed A. Enany, president of the Southern California Biomedical Council, says providing employees for the 1,900 biotech companies currently located in the Los Angeles area is just as important as luring the next Amgen. Even though Los Angeles has not become a biomedical research haven like the Bay Area and the San Diego Area, it still attracts plenty of attention. Enany said that the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest figures show that the Los Angeles area employs the second highest number of biotech employees (over 62,000) in the country, second only to New York. The figure only includes companies that currently market and sell products, so many drug discovery firms near San Francisco are excluded. But Los Angeles does its share of research, Enany said. “We got close to $1 billion last year, this just to support basic research, from the National Institutes of Health,” said Enany. “The sheer force of gravity is going to create some spinoffs, we’re going to see more companies and more jobs.” Local employment Medtronic MiniMed, which designs and manufactures external insulin pumps for diabetes patients, is headquartered in Minneapolis and has an office in Northridge. While the company is setting up its manufacturing process in Puerto Rico, locally, its employment needs range from sales, marketing and customer services and research and development for its devices. Maloney sees her engineering students as a perfect fit for a company like MiniMed. “We have talented engineers going through this intensive training, they’re already here and they’re ready to go to work,” Maloney said. The College of the Canyons program is funded as part of the Los Angeles Life Sciences Training Initiative, which works with a budget of state money. Dennis Petrie, Deputy Director of the Employment Development Department, Workforce Development Branch, said that every year the states collects $455 million for the Workforce Investment Act and 85 percent of the money is distributed to local training programs like those at College of the Canyons. In addition to the engineering program, the college is also running two other short-term training programs, one in facilities maintenance and another for precision assembly. The College of the Canyons program is modeled after a pilot program in San Francisco where displaced United Airlines workers were retrained to take jobs at companies like Genentech, Petrie said. Funds are invested, Petrie says, to allow skilled workers to take high-wage jobs in high-growth industries. For any business, the process of recruiting employees and arranging for relocation is difficult. In Southern California, a high cost of living doesn’t make it any easier for employers or employees. Tim Osslund, a principal scientist with Thousand Oaks-based Amgen, said he’s never short of resumes but has a hard time picking a winner out of 200 seemingly identical students. “We get 275 resumes and a vast majority of people have the same background, they all had a 3.6 GPA and they all want to work in a challenging job in biotech,” said Osslund. “The easiest way to hire someone is to have someone I can trust, call them up have them say, ‘I’ve got a great person.'” Hiring based on a resume an interview is riskier, he said, because it’s easy to end up with a very bright scientists with bad work habits and no real idea about what Amgen’s work involves. Osslund says newly minted Ph.D.s still cling to student habits, coming into work late and putting off work until late at night. But beyond learning new habits, new employees also have to get used to working in teams, rather than in the competitive academic arena, learn about the concept of intellectual property and the practical differences between drug discovery and drug development. “It’s not about making better proteins, it’s about making better drugs,” he said. Over time He said that students often envision themselves discovering new proteins, when in reality they may be spending time modifying a drug over time, making a treatment effective in one dose per day rather than seven. Osslund, who also teaches at nearby Cal State Channel Islands, had good news for local students, however. Amgen has had success, he said, with traditional internships, and has offered jobs to four of about 25 participants in his laboratory’s summer internship program. Some of the most employable and highly paid biotech specialists aren’t scientists or engineers, they’re regulatory affairs specialists, said Frances Richmond, Ph.D., of USC’s Regulatory Affairs Master’s Program. Richmond’s students come from a variety of backgrounds, they’re doctors, lawyers, MBAs and nurses learning to help businesses regulated industries like pharmaceutical companies navigate complex government guidelines and bring new products to market. Most drug companies, Richmond said, spend $802 million and 14 years to bring a new drug to market, spending an average of $28,500 every day. Professionals who can help to lower that threshold are paid handsomely, Richmond said. Her students often already have biotech jobs, and routinely get offers while completing their degrees. “We have zero unemployment,” Richmond said. “Our students are typically employed before the end of the program, we’re training you’re people on the weekend, and (other companies) are cherry picking our students.

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