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Growing workers

State’s biotech industry rushes to find and train employees of the future

When it became clear that the job he held at Polaroid Corp. for 21 years as a chemicals processor would end, Mark C. Knowles knew he would have to make a change.

Few opportunities loomed nearby, and the Littleton man yearned to work for a company with good benefits.

“I knew there were other chemical companies in the area, but I knew there were not too many,” he said.

For Mr. Knowles and some of his Polaroid colleagues, the answer came from a program pushed by Polaroid, funded by the state and organized by Worcester Polytechnic Institute: biotechnology. After just five weeks of classes in the spring, Mr. Knowles stepped back into a production job, this time with Genzyme Corp. in Framingham.

From Devens to Hopkinton, biotech companies are planning manufacturing expansions that could create several hundred new jobs over the next three years. Although the number of workers needed is relatively modest, job applicants will need special skills, and state and industry officials are already looking at ways to groom workers for the jobs ahead. The WPI experience suggests that building a work force for at least some of those jobs may not be so difficult, according to Rachel I. Yamartino, WPI program manager.

“I think it actually taught us that it’s easier than you may think, and we can do it in a very short time frame,” Mrs. Yamartino said.

Manufacturing remains a large employer in Massachusetts, even after decades of corporate flight to locales with cheaper land and workers. But biomanufacturing is nothing like the assembly lines of years past. Drug production takes place in sterile, costly facilities. Workers wear gowns, gloves and masks. The specter of the Food and Drug Administration, which OKs drug manufacturing processes, looms large.

In late 2006, the state Department of Workforce Development estimated that 2,010 job vacancies existed in Massachusetts for workers in the life sciences, physical sciences and social sciences. Most of those openings came from the biotech industry, said Elliot A. Winer, the department’s chief economist. About 4.2 percent of jobs in the sector were vacant, one of the highest job-vacancy rates in the state, Mr. Winer said.

Yet with more than 160,000 people in Massachusetts unemployed and about 92,600 job postings in all industry sectors, the state’s overall numbers suggested that jobs were going empty because workers lacked the qualifications to fill them, Mr. Winer said.

“It does indicate that a lot of people you have unemployed just don’t have the skills,” he said. “It’s not a simple match of placing the unemployed people with jobs that are open right now.”

The outlook is of enough concern that the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a state-funded entity, and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council have hired the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute to study the life science industry’s needs and the ability of the state’s colleges and universities to meet demands for workers. The institute should issue initial policy recommendations this fall.

Among companies building or expanding biomanufacturing facilities in the state are Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., which expects to employ 350 people when its plant begins producing drugs for sale in 2011. Lonza Group is adding 250 jobs as it expands its Hopkinton contract-manufacturing facilities.

Shire Pharmaceuticals has expressed interest in consolidating Massachusetts research and production in Lexington under a plan that would add hundreds of jobs. In Worcester, Abbott Bioresearch Center, which already employs 400 people in biomanufacturing, has about 20 job openings and will likely have more as it produces new biologicals for Abbott Laboratories and contract customers.

Biotechnology companies have long funded science education programs for young students, an effort aimed at encouraging teens to go on to college studies in math, science and engineering. Some companies also team up with community colleges to design associate’s degree programs for people interested in biomanufacturing jobs that do not require advanced degrees.

The state’s work force training fund has also given grants to five companies in Central Massachusetts, including Abbott Bioresearch Center, over the last two fiscal years to support efforts to train existing biomanufacturing workers.

Yet the availability of workers for knowledge-based fields fluctuates because of the state’s boom-bust cycle in technology fields, according to Paul E. Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. When industries retrench, students choose fields other than math, science and engineering, he said. Many workers with skills also leave the state for jobs elsewhere.

Retraining displaced workers for biotech jobs is possible, Mr. Harrington said, but generally only when the workers already possess technical knowledge and skills.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of this is very high-end, college labor market dominated employment growth,” Mr. Harrington said. “The industry does provide some opportunity, but you’re going to have to have the technical proficiencies.”

Not everyone needs a doctorate, however, said Glen A. Comiso, director of life sciences and health issues for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, an economic development agency in Westboro. In biomanufacturing, about 60 percent of jobs require a high school or associate’s degree, he said, and community colleges can help prepare workers for those jobs.

“There’s this perception these are Ph.D. jobs, but the reality is there are a significant percentage that are great jobs that are career-level jobs that are entry-level,” Mr. Comiso said. “The key is to provide the training for them.”

Although its plant is still under construction, Bristol-Myers Squibb is establishing collaborations with an area high school and Mount Wachusett Community College to build training programs for potential workers. The company, which expects to manufacture the rheumatoid arthritis treatment Orencia at Devens, will need technicians to calibrate and maintain instruments, microbiologists to monitor the manufacturing environment, chemical and manufacturing engineers, and operators to manufacture and purify drugs.

Bristol-Myers Squibb plans to use a building on the Devens campus as a classroom and training center for new workers.

“To get up to speed with running our process, there’s about a six-month lead time,” said S. Joseph Tarnowski, Bristol-Myers Squibb senior vice president of biologics manufacturing and process development. “Our plan is to try to have people on board before we make the first manufacturing batch.”

Abbott Bioresearch Center has also reached out to area schools and community colleges, but with most of its staff in place, the company is focusing on the search for people with bachelor’s and more advanced degrees, said Peter F. Moesta, Abbott divisional vice president, biologics manufacturing. The company will be looking for people with skills in quality assurance and other areas as it ramps up work on ABT-874, an anti-Interleukin 12 drug for psoriasis and Crohn’s disease, and ABT-325, an anti-Interleukin 18 compound for immunological disorders.

“Now our demand is shifting to even higher-skill levels,” said Dr. Moesta, who has a doctorate in biochemistry. “So it’s becoming more and more important to us to recruit at local universities. We have been trying to strengthen our efforts in that regard.”

At WPI, Mrs. Yamartino said chemical workers found some of their skills related to biotechnology. They were accustomed to mixing and monitoring solutions, she said. They were also experienced and committed workers, she said.

“In their industry, they had to follow rules or they could get hurt,” Mrs. Yamartino said. “In biotech, you have to follow rules or you can’t make product. The FDA doesn’t take it lightly.”

The WPI program, which has retrained 37 people, put students through instruction on topics such as bioassays, media and buffer preparation and fermentation operations. For Mr. Knowles of Littleton, moving from a chemical workplace to a biomanufacturing facility meant learning some new ways of working. Although his previous employer cross-trained workers in a wide variety of skills, in biomanufacturing Mr. Knowles and the team he works with focus on a specific part of production.

“It’s not only what you know, but what kind of co-worker would you make,” Mr. Knowles said. “You work in small teams. You have to be cooperative.”

The hunt for area workers has taken some unusual twists. Some former Abbott workers have taken jobs with Bristol-Myers Squibb, according to Mrs. Yamartino. Abbott, in its hunt for highly skilled workers, is searching outside Massachusetts and the United States.

“I think there will be competition (for workers), but I also think that is not necessarily unhealthy,” said Dr. Tarnowski of Bristol-Myers Squibb, who has a doctorate in biochemistry. “I think it will give the future worker some options to select from. I think it will be good for them.”

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