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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023

It’s Back to School For Area Biotechs

Biotech companies in the greater San Fernando Valley are able to attract some of the world’s top scientists, drawn by leading companies such as Amgen Inc. But it’s another story when companies try to fill lower-level positions that don’t require doctorates and other advanced degrees. Consider what Kinamed Inc. is up against when it tries to recruit manufacturing workers for its medical device business. “When we put out ads for jobs, the respondents just aren’t up to snuff,” said William Pratt, vice president of operations at the Camarillo company, which makes devices for orthopedic care and equipment to prepare bones for orthopedic surgery. “We have a crisis of recruitment because we’re not exposing people to those job skills.” Pratt is not the only executive who says job candidates are often under-qualified in manufacturing skills or lack a working knowledge of laboratory standards. Now, Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys hopes it can help its students meet the need by growing its biomanufacturing training program, armed with $1.7 million in new funding from a Department of Labor grant. The grant is earmarked to fund a three-year initiative, led by area employers, an industry trade group and the school’s job training department. The money will fund specialized laboratories, online learning and job placement efforts. The school already offers a training program, the BioTech Bridge Academy, which has a partnership with Deerfield, Ill. biotech firm Baxter International Inc. The company has offices in Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks and Los Angeles. The idea is to build on the existing program with additional employers’ participation, particularly focusing on the skills they need in workers. “This will be very cutting edge, and will really drag the region forward,” said Steve Dahms, co-author of the proposal and grant project coordinator for the Southern California Biomedical Council, a Los Angeles-based trade group. Establishing a base Biomedical firms in the area have lamented the lack of a steady stream of specialized biomedical workers, but some have found ways around the problem. In the Valley, some retrain workers with other manufacturing experience. “Traditionally, the industry has piggybacked off of other industries,” said Ahmed Enany, president of the SoCalBio trade group. “Medical device companies have used a lot of former aerospace workers who had technical skills.” But now that labor pool is drying up. Many aerospace workers are nearing retirement age, and since the industry has declined in recent decades, there are no young workers in the pipeline for biotech to poach. The Valley College program will give graduates a certificate upon graduation, and local industry will be heavily involved in developing the curriculum. Enany said the grant money will go through the school, which will contract with his group for some services, including advisement from a steering committee led by the trade organization. “Some of them will be the usual suspects,” he said, referring to large firms like Baxter and Los Angeles biotech company Grifols S.A. “But the committee is still being formed, and we’d like to get more employers on the committee.” The jobs they hope certificates can be planned for include biological, chemical and clinical laboratory technicians. “The goal is to create a nationwide understanding of what is needed in these industry jobs,” Enany said. At Kinamed, Pratt said he’s looking for more than just manufacturing ability when it comes to workers. “We have less than 30 employees, so we are looking for people who are flexible and can cross-train. We’re looking for people who can do metal fabrication, know how to conduct themselves in a clean room and can learn to work with computerized metal-cutting equipment,” he said. “It isn’t just sitting at a desk doing the same repetitive thing.” Currently, the Baxter program trains students, who get an interview with the company upon completing the program, as well as existing employees who are seeking to add to their skill set. Students take 12 weeks of classes that focus specifically on job skills for working in biopharmaceutical and medical device companies, including training in biomedical plastics and environmental monitoring. Lennie Ciufo, director of the school’s job training program, says the Baxter public-private partnership has been successful in getting students jobs after completion – and demonstrates the need to train an increasing number of workers. “What we promise is that they will get an interview with Baxter,” he said. “And we have an 80 percent success rate. Some students start work the Monday after a Friday graduation. We hope this will allow us to reach out to other employers.” Growing the program The new initiative is part of a larger $15 million multi-college federal grant to work with other colleges to create national standards for instruction and a series of skills certificate programs. Still, the program needs to have its curriculum approved by the state. And because the money was doled as part of a larger grant to multiple schools, the curriculum will depend largely on what all of the schools decide to do. The group of schools, called the Community College Consortium for Bioscience Credentials, includes 12 community colleges and is led by Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Others include City College of San Francisco and Salt Lake Community College. While industry representatives and the schools are still working out details and the steering committee is still being assembled, the added classes are slated to start next semester. “We know that a lot of classes will be online, and those will be starting in the fall,” Enany said. He also noted that new laboratory equipment for biology labs will soon be on the way, and that the certificate programs will begin to be put together. Ciufo, the Valley College administrator, said the program will be fine-tuned during the three years of the grant. The school wants to ensure that graduates have multiple paths they can take in the program and once they enter the workplace. “The grant allows us to create an educational ladder for students,” said Ciufo. “One is to get a job. Another is to continue further educational goals.”

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