CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Within five to seven years after the N.C. Research Campus opens in Kannapolis next spring, the Campus expected to be home for 5,000 biotech jobs, as well as another 30,000 jobs related to its presence.
Finding qualified workers for those jobs is going to be quite a challenge, and the region’s community colleges are already gearing up to meet it.
Recently, the North Carolina Community College System awarded Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte three grants totaling just under $170,000 to jumpstart the efforts. Although CPCC was the direct recipient of the grants, two of them were awarded on behalf of the Charlotte region’s eight community colleges.
The largest of the grants – $75,000 — is for the creation of the Biotechnology Planning Network.
“We need more identifiers to determine the needs of retraining the workforce,” said Richard Zollinger, associate vice president for instruction at CPCC.
But it’s not just a matter of what is offered at each individual school. There will also be a facility on the Research Campus for classes offered by the community college system, primarily CPCC, Gaston College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (RCCC).
According to Linda Greer, vice president for economic and workforce development at Gaston, committees are being formed at each college to help determine what each institution will offer directly at the Research Campus. “We are representing the community colleges in the development of economic development strategies for the campus,” she explained.
The other collaborative grant — in the amount of $58,000 – is for the first phase of creating a Charlotte Region BioBusiness Service Hub. This effort includes representatives from the small business centers at CPCC, Gaston College, RCCC, Catawba CC, Cleveland CC, Mitchell CC, Stanley CC and Southern Piedmont CC (SPCC).
Lori Day, head of the CPCC center, said the hub’s focus will be on serving small businesses and entrepreneurs either in the biotech business or looking to serve the industry. (For example, a janitorial service may want to learn how to serve labs and clean rooms.)
To accomplish this, the colleges will develop a working definition of what a biotech/life sciences company is, conduct an inventory of them in the region and develop a way to communicate with them and each other. After this has been done with the initial grant monies, the companies will be surveyed about their needs, and a plan developed to address them.
“We want to be the most effective support network we can be,” Day said. “That’s why it’s a collaborative effort — one college can’t do it all.”
Added Heidi Whitesell, Day’s counterpart at RCCC: “We need to get out of the mode of working in silos. By developing a standardized and integrated system for collecting information, we’ll have one accurate data set and better communication among the colleges. Then we can decide what we need to do and not duplicate services.”
Avoiding duplication of services is also a major goal of the joint workforce development efforts. Currently, only Gaston College is offering an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science (AAS) specializing in biotechnology. However, students at CPCC, RCCC, and SPCC can take their first year course load at their local school and then transfer seamlessly to Gaston for the final year of courses, which are all lab-based.
Gaston will begin the AAS biotech degree program in the winter semester and is currently taking applications, said Melissa Armstrong, chair of Gaston’s Science Department. Students must meet eligibility requirements in math and science to enroll, and enrollment will initially be capped at 20 students.
Gaston is the only community college in the area with the necessary laboratory facilities to offer the biotech degree. Those labs were funded last year by a $176,000 gift from Duke Energy. The degree also qualifies graduates for jobs in medical, industrial and pharmaceutical labs. Starting salaries usually begin in the $20,000’s, Armstrong said. She added that there are estimates the state will need 125,000 biotech workers by 2025.
But until the community colleges can get a better handle on what kind of training these workers will need, they’re not going to just start adding new courses. Commented Zollinger, “We don’t want all the colleges offering the same programs — we each need to find our niche.”
The third grant CPCC received — in the amount of $36,759 — is for lab supplies and equipment to enhance its current science offerings.