Community College Networks for Biotech Education

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Speaking to the Southern Governors Association in August 2014, former President Bill Clinton articulated his theme for economic development: "Everywhere in the world and everywhere in America where there are networks of cooperation, good things are happening."

This spirit of cooperation has led to a community college network of collaboration in biotechnology workforce development beginning with investments by the National Science Foundation in the late 1990s.

In 1998, the NSF established BioLink, an Advanced Technology Education project hosted at the Community College of San Francisco supporting the growing biotech sector.

In 2004, the U. S. Department of Labor, building on the President's High Growth Job Initiative in the Bush administration, funded the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce (NCBW) at Forsyth Technical Community College. Though centered in North Carolina, the network extended to other states and cities with biotech strengths - Iowa, New Hampshire, San Diego and Seattle.

In the 10 years since the NCBW was established, Labor has continued its support for biotechnology workforce development with investments in an expanded network of colleges led by the NCBW through the Workforce Innovations for Regional Economic Development Initiative and the Trade Adjustment Act Community College and Career Training grant program. NSF has invested in the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative (2008), the Bioscience Industrial Fellowship Project, and other biotech or bioscience projects.

Today, community colleges and their employer partners in the biotechnology sector from San Francisco to Winston-Salem, Austin to Madison, are reaping the benefits of these years of investment and effort -- a network of federal agencies, community colleges, and employers working together.

Today, there is clearinghouse of best practices in curriculum and pedagogy. BioLink and NCBW provide technical support for colleges developing curricula and implementing training. A national policy capability is in place for biotechnology workforce development through a strategic partnership between NCBW and the Manufacturing Institute and the NCBW and BioLink relationship with BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

James Greenwood, CEO of BIO, summarizes the current state: "There's no limit to our challenges. There's no limit to what we have to learn. And there is no limit to our ability to use this knowledge to good purpose." (Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs).

The potential of the networks of collaboration in biotechnology workforce development to create the jobs of the future in R&D, biomanufacturing, pharmaceuticals, biomaterials, and bioinformatics is truly unlimited.

The future includes nationally recognized skill standards and third party certification of those skills. These skill standards, aligned with Good Manufacturing Practice/Good Laboratory Practice, are not unlike the certification systems currently in place and expanding in the manufacturing and information technology sectors. These skill standards -- some already developed; some under development by NCBW, BioLink, and others - will be part of stackable credentials that will define a career path for biotechnicians.

The future will increasingly see the convergence of technologies - new jobs and new skill sets at the intersections of biotechnology, nanotechnology, IT, or clinical health. Bio-nanotechnology (or nano-biotechnology) is creating skill opportunities in drug and therapy delivery. Biotech and clinical health meet to bring personalized pharmaceuticals and therapy to patients. The convergence of biotech and IT is leading to a need for technicians to mine big data for product and treatment design.

Among the exciting job opportunities in bioscience comes at its convergence with mechanical engineering. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine are at the cutting edge of medical research. Technicians, educated in community colleges, are providing the highly-skilled technical support required by world-class researchers and clinicians - the lab skills needed for such processes as organ scaffolding and the 3-D printing of cellular tissue.

Networks of community colleges, federal agencies, employers and employer groups are all collaborating to meet the need of the biotechnology sector for highly-skilled technicians, creating jobs of the future in the technologies of tomorrow.