Part 2 – Addressing the Workforce Challenge in the Growing NC Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Industry
Phil Mintz: Is it fair to say, Bill, that even if you do have the plateaus in some of these the employee skills can be transferred over to what’s new that may be coming out, going forward? So, there could still be opportunities for people, even if their particular product wanes.
Bill Bullock: Phil, I think you are right on with that. The foundational part of this is people need to eat, people are going to get sick, and the population is growing. This is a space that won’t go away. I think this is both a state question as well as a national and international question. I think the barrier to entry is big in this space, and I think it’s going to get harder. Unless they put a lot of money into trying to build this infrastructure, it is hard to replicate, in my opinion, what North Carolina has done.
Because even though the technology is evolving to be more flexible, and more disposable, they are regulated facilities. When a company like Fuji makes a commitment that they are going to spend $2 billion in Holly Springs, that means they are going to build infrastructure and that infrastructure has to get validated by the FDA. You just don’t want to move that stuff. It’s not Dell where they could move tomorrow. They are not going to do that because it is so tightly integrated. The labor pool and the talent are part of your validation process. Once they have that in place, they tend not to move. They tend to grow. If you look at the companies – like Thermo, or Mayne or go to Wilson and look at some of those companies – there is always an outlier. Then there is Purdue Pharma where something blows up and that’s just part of business.
For the most part, these companies have commonly grown, such as Merck, Griffols, Novo, and Biogen (among others). Go down the list, they grow. As long as they’ve got talent and you create an environment, they tend to stay, and I think that will continue to be the case for a while.
John Loyack: And I think the other thing that we haven’t even scratched the surface on, Bill, is the supply chain for this particular industry. When it comes to basic pharmaceutical manufacturing, you need a lot of white bottles and caps, and that’s enough. We are seeing expansion now of businesses that have been working. All of this, I believe Bill, is largely injectable. This requires a totally different supply chain than traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing. We are seeing companies like West Pharma out in Kinston, who make little rubber stoppers that go at the end of a vial, expand. We are seeing the likes of Apiject, who’s coming in here with new injectable technologies that people will be able to use from their home, rather than going to a nurse or any clinician.
There are some interesting opportunities from the supply chain of this because it must be closer. I mean cold storage opportunities, there’s so much that this opens to us that if this were just a traditional, generic pill manufacturing, it wouldn’t be in play.
Bill Bullock: I think the other thing, John, which I don’t know enough about how this group could help is building, from a national security perspective, a more robust domestic capacity to go from beginning to end on supply chain and production.
How we include the military and their veterans in that so we don’t get here again. We need to be right in the middle of the conversations going on at the national level. Given the military presence in North Carolina, training infrastructure in North Carolina, and our logistics capability in North Carolina, we need to not only be in the middle of that, but we need to be part of driving some of those conversations.
One of the programs that we did in the last year and a half is a veteran’s outreach program, it’s built very much on the same concept. There were a lot of ad hoc things going on, where individual companies with individual programs with no individual installations. What we didn’t see was a broader program. And yet, the question we asked the center was if we are a global leader in bio manufacturing and one of the largest military states, how are we not the first name mentioned when someone asks “how about the military working in bio manufacturing?” People should see North Carolina as a reference point.
It sounded really good, but the logistics of putting it together – working on the bases, building a relationship with the transition offices, understanding the idiosyncrasies of their transitioning military, what they can do, what they can’t do, working with the local community college – was challenging. It is regulated, so you can’t just bring somebody in and tell them to go out on the shop floor and figure out how to do that.
We built a pilot program between Fort Bragg, Central Carolina Community College, and Pfizer in Sanford, and it worked great. We placed eight transitioning military. The opportunity here is that these are folks in transition. They are 12 to 18 months from leaving, but we are pumping out 20,000-23,000 of those folks each year. It is a really good skill set. These are folks who are inherently passionate about what they do, which fits well with the ethos of pharmaceuticals. You are making something that’s going to help somebody out. Lots of SOP (standard operating procedures), rigor, and the regulated environment of biologics manufacturing. These are folks that are very familiar with following standard operating procedures. They have a really great work ethic, so the connection is really good, but you have to line that up and make that work.
I think we have that same opportunity to do that in so many different populations. We have got the infrastructure with the Community Colleges. We have been working with the workforce development boards in the NC Work Centers. We got some CARES Act dollars, so we did an interesting program where we worked with a sub segment of the workforce development boards through the NC Works Career Centers. We identified a series of folks that had been displaced due to COVID, and we paid them a stipend to attend a webinar. The Biotech Center put together a five-hour webinar series and asked for interested parties with any type of transformation skill set (background or industry experience did not matter). We did a five-hour webinar with them, and we had 454 folks show up.
It provided an introduction of what biopharma manufacturing is, and let them know if they were interested, they could have a career in the industry and here is the pathway to get there. Seventy percent of the people that showed up actually had four-year degrees.
Part of what we’ve started focusing a little bit more on at the Center is how to expand these types of programs. We don’t have enough funding to go do these programs, so we’ve been piloting ideas. We have a K-12 program out in Pitt County. We took graduating seniors that had no idea what they were going to do and provided a pathway for them to go through a three-day training course because you know Mayne Pharma and ThermoFisher need to hire 600 people in the next few years.
Lots of this stuff is out there, we just need to scale it. That’s my personal opinion. We probably need to tweak a few things. Maybe we need to do a few things a little bit differently, but the big advantage for the state is all the infrastructure is sitting there. We just need to coordinate it a little bit better.
We probably need some resources to invest in this because, it’s one thing to take somebody that was waiting tables with a Biology degree from UNC Chapel Hill and say go take BioWork and we’ll get you an interview. It’s another when taking somebody who is a single mother in a rural county who has never even thought about it. We must meet all these folks where they are, but we can do that. I think we can do it if we resource it.
Jenni Harris: What was the response rate for the 400 people who participated in that webinar? Was there any follow up? Were jobs offered to some of those people? Were they put in training?
Bill Bullock: That’s a great question. I could spend all day with you guys on this conversation for sure, because they are all really good questions. We did limited follow-up because we had limited funds. We basically had a restricted amount of time to use those CARES funds, so we kind of put this together pretty quick. We had a little bit more money and we realized we get a little bit longer to spend it, so now we are actually in the process of doing that.
What I noticed is we are not great at tracking these things. So far, the limited amount of data we have says that, at least through Durham Tech, the response rates have been pretty small. Of the 454 folks that did the webinar, how many of those signed up that we could track and went into a BioWork program at Durham Tech? It’s not that many right now.
You know where I think we missed the boat, because we didn’t quite have the resources to do it, was to do that webinar and then get the participants on a pathway right after they came out of the webinar. To come right in and say okay, now that you have done this, let’s go do this and then let’s go do this – we are not quite there yet.
Phil Mintz: Bill, you talked about having the funding to do these types of things, and I guess you are using CARES Act funding, and obviously there’s been some state investment. But what do you see as the future? Are these companies that have all this need, are they investing in this development and training like they should? What is your outlook on that? It seems like they would want to do that.
Bill Bullock: I will give you my perspective. I think what is happening is they’re individually dipping into programs. If you are Merck, you’ve got a relationship with Durham Tech and you’re doing some stuff. You might have some customized training dollars from one-year expansions. What I have found is when I have this conversation with these companies, they nod, but they want the easy button. They say, “I don’t have the capacity to build the program you’re talking about…you need to build it. You build it, show me an easy way to get involved in it and we will do it. Keep asking me questions as a company, because I want to let you know what it is we need.” We have good traditional programs through the Community Colleges and a lot of these companies sit on various committees to provide input around curriculum.
But honestly, I think it is why I was excited about John’s request to come talk about where we are. I have been in conversations with Scott Rawls, about what they are doing at Wake Tech. We have a meeting in mid-June with Fuji about their expansion. The companies aren’t looking and saying you don’t have this, or you don’t have that. They’re looking and saying “you have so much stuff, I don’t know how to use it all. Package it up in a way that meets my needs and make it easier for me to go do the thing you want to do.”
They are in this mode of growth and they get into the talent acquisition mode, and their talent acquisition people are simply hiring people. They are getting a list and they have to hire 100 people in nine months. They’re not in a position to be saying, hey Bill, why don’t you work with the community and build a program where we can get more folks from tier two and tier one counties working in my business that are in a 50-mile radius? They are not going to build that program. But, if we took a candidate community to them and said, “we know what you do, we’ve upscaled some folks, and we put people through BioWork. You, company A, B and C have to commit to doing interviews. If we are going to do these things, you need to commit to interviewing them.” That is working in the small pilots, our K-12 pilot we did in Pitt, and our veterans outreach program.
There was another flavor of this that we did partner with Durham Tech and Made in Durham, where we put a subgroup of folks through a workshop. We had a couple of companies and said if we screen these folks, we get them into BioWork, when they come out, we are going to do a hiring event – not a job fair – a hiring event, which involves prescreening all the folks that are going to come into the event, and then you get to interview them during the event. This event went really well.
Phil Mintz: But all that is still State funding activity, right?
Bill Bullock: It is cobbled together Phil. Some of that is Biotech Center funding, which is State funding. A little bit of that is CARES funding that we had. We had a meeting last week with representatives from the Department of Commerce Division of Workforce Solutions (DWS) to have a very similar conversation around how we work more closely together. BTEC can provide the linkage to the companies and the expertise and knowledge around the bio manufacturing business. But we don’t have access to people and we, frankly, don’t have a lot of funding. I know there are federal dollars, so again, trying to take stuff that’s kind of like this and move it a little bit more like this where we’re being able to leverage some of the existing programs and funding and just get more people into the system.
Dominick Stephenson: Bill, just a quick question. Has the topic of apprenticeships come up very much with these types of companies? I know there are a lot of different levels of employment possibilities, but has that been on the table, or has it been more short-term credentialing?
Bill Bullock: Great question. It definitely has come up. I know the Community College has some really good programs and that’s a big focus for them. It is a good program and there are definitely some implemented apprenticeships at some of the companies.
I think the challenge around apprenticeships is a couple of fold. One is there is some misalignment between how apprenticeships work in this industry sector. First of all, because of FDA regulations, you have to be 18 years old before you can actually go in and work in one of these facilities.
And because of the skill requirement and the requirements to make a commitment early, in an apprenticeship environment, that you are going to hire this person, companies are somewhat reluctant to do that because of the skill set requirement and training requirements.
It is really good on the trade worker side. So, there’s a big demand for a lot of these facilities on the trade side and that’s a really good fit. It is harder on the operator side. The other issue is even with all that said, if we did it really well, you might have 30 people in apprenticeships across the whole thing. When you are in a mode where these companies are collectively looking at hiring 2000 people, it’s a good idea but it’s not going to meet the need and it’s not going to solve the problem. I think that that’s part of it.
Jeff DeBellis: Bill, Commerce, along with the University System, DPI, Community College,
Workforce, DHHS, etc., launched a website in June called NC Careers. It’s a career information system for anybody from middle school on up through adulthood and an enhancement to that just launched last week. If you are looking to reach out to folks, particularly those of school age, the goal is just to get good career information out to folks and not really to steer them towards one industry over another. It is not to put our thumb on the scale, but to just show opportunities. It’s only been up since July, but we’ve already had 145,000 users, over a million page views and the Governor’s announced it.
We are about to start marketing it, but there may be an opportunity to just experiment with an industry to see what additional information we can have. Whether it’s here’s a day in the life of a worker in these occupations, because we focus on 900 occupations in there. They could pick a few of them and say here’s real-life examples or some other opportunity. So, if you guys are trying to market to students, unemployed workers, or people who are trying to look at careers, take a look at the site, get in touch with me and maybe we can explore something creative to market it.
Bill Bullock: Jeff, that’s a great suggestion. One of the things that we did with some of the CARES
dollars that might be a really easy thing to do, relative to this, is we created something in partnership with WRAL digital solutions called Bio Jobs Hub. It’s not a jobs page, but it is a page that says if you don’t know anything about these types of bio manufacturing jobs and you just want to get a clue, it’s got some videos. It provides some very basic information and it is our early easy version, given the fact that we had a restricted amount of time and restricted money to just get something up that we could send people to in the populace. Anybody could go there because it is designed to say if you’re here, you can do this. I wonder if there is a way to link that to something that you’ve got on NC Careers, because that’s our early version of trying to build just a little bit of awareness for folks who don’t have familiarity with this at all.
William O. Bullock, MBA
Senior Vice President, Economic Development and Statewide Operations
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