Biopharma, Biotech, Bio…What? Breaking down the life sciences and what it means for North Carolina’s workforce

Biopharma, Biotech, Bio…What? Breaking down the life sciences and what it means for North Carolina’s workforce

Tuesday, June 20, 2023 - 9:58am

The biotechnology boom of the 2020s is in full bloom across the Triangle, and it has a lot of people asking – what exactly is biotechnology, and why are community colleges playing such a large role?

Let’s break down some key definitions to start:

  • Life sciences is the study of living organisms and life processes—essentially fermentation—using living cells to produce something else, i.e., yogurt, the bacterial transformation of milk;
  • Biotechnology is the most prominent subsector of the life sciences industry, and encompasses processes like growing food, making medicines, and developing vaccines;
  • Biopharma is an aspect of biotechnology that involves the manufacturing of pharmaceutical drugs from living organisms; and
  • Biotechnology companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific and KBI Biopharma operate manufacturing facilities across the state to create products, and they need skilled workers on the production line.

The Research Triangle alone is comprised of 600+ life sciences companies and 24,000+ employees with industry specializations including biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC). North Carolina’s life sciences cluster grew nearly 40 percent over a 10-year period (2011-2021), and the onset of COVID-19 and the need for expedited vaccine development spiked its growth even further.

This is where community colleges come into play.

There are more positions available than there are trained workers to fill them, but organizations like BioNetwork are helping connect the dots between community colleges, companies, and the workforce through talent development and talent acquisition.

BioNetwork was established in 2003 as the life sciences training initiative of the North Carolina Community College System. They design and deliver biomanufacturing and food production training, eLearning, lab testing services, and customized training services to community colleges.

Vernon Shoaf, Senior Director of BioNetwork, said positions in this industry are highly desirable, and for good reason.

“The pay scale and potential for upward career trajectory is off the charts. There are so many different opportunities within the industry and it’s really fulfilling for people that have the desire to help save and improve lives,” he said. “You truly are empowered to use your God-given gifts, abilities, and talents to improve lives and make good money while you’re at it.”

To enter the field, register for BioWork, a short-term course that teaches the fundamental skills needed to begin a career as a manufacturing associate for a biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or chemical manufacturing company. Depending on the college, the course ranges from 4-6 weeks to 3-4 months.

BioWork is currently offered at 12 community colleges in the state. See the course schedule for upcoming courses.

Shoaf said students should expect entry-level opportunities to include rotating shift work. It is the essence of manufacturing, but if you stick with it, you can work your way up to a different schedule.

Erica Vilsaint, Executive Director of NC BioNetwork, said positions in this field are not only attractive because of the pay scale but also because of their mental stimulation.

“This is a life changing industry and rapidly evolving all the time. People want to be challenged, and there’s a rapid change component to these positions,” she said. “There are so many career paths to choose from within this one industry. You never know what products are out there that can be used in new ways to create different outcomes. That’s what keeps this industry interesting as a whole. The possibilities and opportunities are endless.”

Steven Collier completed the Biotechnology associate degree at Wilson Community College in December 2022 and secured employment with Novo Nordisk as a QC Analyst just one month later.

“When I saw the Biotechnology program at Wilson, it really caught my attention. I felt that it would lead me to a career where I could do meaningful work,” Collier said. “Even though I still have a lot to learn, the Biotechnology program helped me build a strong foundation. I love that you can see the direct impact of your work. I have a clear picture of the importance of my work and how it helps people.”

Novo Nordisk is a leading global healthcare company whose purpose is to defeat diabetes by developing innovative medicines. Across their three facilities in the Triangle region, Novo Nordisk employs more than 1,900 people.

“Starting a career at Novo Nordisk is more than getting a job. It is an opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people living with a serious chronic disease,” said Shaylah Nunn Jones, Novo Nordisk’s government and public affairs lead. “There are countless opportunities for life-changing careers in biotechnology at Novo Nordisk, and we are dedicated to growing the biotechnology talent pipeline to ensure these careers are accessible to people from diverse backgrounds and education levels. Our strong local community college system is an essential partner in this commitment.”

Earlier this year, Novo Nordisk donated $6 million to Durham Technical Community College to support the College’s life sciences program and a new 35,000-square-foot Life Sciences Training Center. They also sustain a decades-long partnership with Johnston Community College, and helped create the College’s Workforce Development Center, featuring a world-class simulated pharmaceutical manufacturing environment.

person holding plant in lab coat leaning over tableShoaf said the future of biotechnology will continue to evolve rapidly with the rise of artificial intelligence.

“Some say we’re in the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, commonly referred to as industry 4.0 or pharma 4.0 in the life science industry,” he said. “There are so many different types of tools and technology that are accelerating the drug development and manufacturing process. For example, we saw how fast a vaccine came to drug in Operation warp speed. Additional uses include AI, cloud computing, digital twins, and quantum computing using predictive analytics to discover new therapeutics. On the community college side, as we look at the workforce of the future, it’s going to include digital transformation skills needed to be effective in the workforce.”

Shoaf said NC BioNetwork will make adjustments to the BioWork curriculum to keep up with the rapidly evolving industry.

“We’re keeping our finger on the pulse as to what the industry needs, and we’re always considering the new knowledge and skills needed for our students as well as our faculty who are on the front lines supporting the life science workforce needs. ” he said. “Focusing on delivering customer value through problem solving, a continuous improvement mindset will make North Carolina stronger in every sector of the economy. These  are essential principles found in every successful organization.”

Start a career in biotechnology and register for BioWork today.