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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Novo’s $6M gifts signals biopharma’s promise

Durham Tech had a big day last Wednesday. Novo Nordisk, a biotech powerhouse with nearly 1,800 employees in the Triangle, announced a $6 million donation to the college.

The gift says a lot about the transformation of North Carolina into a life sciences hub, with 800 companies and around 70,000 employees. North Carolina is home to Novo’s largest manufacturing footprint in the U.S, almost doubling in size and staffing over the past six years.  And it also highlights the challenge of training enough employees to support this rapidly growing sector.

The good news is that biotech jobs are within reach of folks with industry-recognized certificates and associate’s degrees. That is why Novo was at a community college Wednesday. Durham Tech and its peers in the 58-school community college system are where many biotech workers will come from.

“Now unless your moving truck pulled up about five minutes ago,” says J.B. Buxton, Durham Tech’s president, “you know the important role that life sciences has played and is increasingly playing in the economy of this region. We are now over 60% of the life science jobs in the state with more than 7,000 new life science manufacturing jobs coming to this area.”

J.B. Buxton

“Here’s what’s even more important,” he said at the announcement ceremony. “These are good jobs. These are good jobs that lead to great careers in a sector that is about developing, making and deploying lifesaving, life-changing medicines.”

The details

The voters in Durham County in November passed a $112.7 million bond referendum for Durham Tech which included funds for construction of a 35,280-square-foot, $35.2 million Life Sciences Training Center. Construction will start this spring and the building will be finished by 2026. The Novo donation, over four years, is the school’s largest since it began as the Durham Industrial Education Center in 1961. It will help fund a biotechnology associate of applied science degree program, purchase biotech training equipment, and create a biotech training program to help folks transition into the industry. It will also help the college expand the Career and College Promise program for high school students in Durham and Orange counties, which lets them start earning certificates and college degrees.

Novo Nordisk came to Clayton 30 years ago, on the other side of the Triangle, to operate an insulin processing and packaging plant that employed around 100 scientists and technicians. The Denmark-based company, which dominated the European insulin market, was aiming to grow its U.S. business.  Novo Nordisk’s expansion over the years has helped fuel Clayton’s rapid growth in Johnston County. In 2015, it announced construction of a $1.8 billion facility across the road from its existing injectables plant to manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients for a range of Novo products. Today, both facilities employ around 1,700 workers.

Novo Nordisk acquired a plant from Purdue Pharma in Durham in 2019, where it makes oral medications for diabetes. Dale Pulczinski, then a Novo executive in Clayton, was tapped to run the Durham plant, starting with three employees in December 2019. The facility now has “a little less than 120,” he says, and may grow to 200.

In Johnston, Novo has worked closely with the local community college over the years, supporting the construction of its Workforce Development Center, which opened in 2005, where students can receive a BioWork certificate or degree. This included funding, donations of equipment, as well as scholarships, internships and apprenticeships. Novo donated the land. The center is literally across the railroad tracks from the new Novo API plant, and a half-mile from the massive Grifols manufacturing campus, where plasma-derived medicines are made.

“So, we have our facilities in Clayton, been there for 30 years, and have a very strong relationship with Johnston Community College Workforce Development Center there, right around the corner,” says Pulczinski.

But Novo didn’t have that yet in Durham, and as it looked ahead to growth, its decision to partner with Durham Tech made sense.

What are these jobs?

But one challenge is raising awareness of the life sciences sector out in the workforce and schools. Students and parents may be a little fuzzy about what companies like Novo Nordisk do and who can work for them.

Geoff Durham, who is on the Durham Tech board of trustees and the CEO of the Durham chamber, put it pretty well after the announcement last week:

“We need to collectively demystify the life sciences as a career opportunity for our students. It sounds a little bit like grabbing at smoke a lot of times when you hear about this. It sounds like advanced degrees and doctorates and things like that. The reality of it is the majority of these positions can be attained through certifications, associates degrees, apprenticeships.”

There are ways to communicate this. The community college system has a video that is a good introduction to biotechnology and biomanufacturing. It is for folks who want to start with a BioWork certificate that can get them a job as a process technician.

Biotechnology is the science of using living cells or organisms to produce products, like medicines: insulin for diabetes, drugs for multiple sclerosis and flu vaccines. In training, students learn proper manufacturing and documentation processes, equipment operation, how to prevent contamination (a/k/a aseptic techniques) and fermentation – how to grow living cells. The industry needs folks who know how to operate equipment, clean and sterilize equipment and mix ingredients to make drugs. It wants folks who follow instructions, are good at documentation, and approach the job as if they are making a drug for a family member.  But it is also about finding people who can embrace a Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) mindset. Working in biotech and biomanufacturing is as much about learning the culture as the skills.

Once through the BioWork program, which can take four months, students will be able to take the process technician certification exam, an industry-recognized credential.

One of North Carolina’s key education goals is to get more 25-44-year-olds in programs that will lead to a degree or industry-recognized credential. Growing the workforce for the biotech sector is squarely in the center of this education initiative.

The big topic

Training the workforce is the big topic right now. Every other day, there are folks meeting about this around the state. We do a good job at recruiting industry, but our ability to continue to do that depends on our ability to keep developing our workforce.

Friday, I was in Greenville, where educators, economic developers and business leaders were creating an “Industry in School” alliance. The NC East Alliance’s STEM East Network aims to create a better understanding among K-12 teachers and community college faculty about the region’s jobs and industry clusters, what training is required and what they pay, so they can share that knowledge with students.

Eastern North Carolina – like the Research Triangle – is a rising biopharma manufacturing region. But the message has to get out to middle-school, high school and community college students so they can see these opportunities and training pathways. And the message has to get out to folks who are stuck in low-wage jobs that even with short-term training they can enter the biopharma manufacturing sector.

Buxton was talking about this short-term training, and how it is particularly suited to workers in their 20s and 30s. There are more than 32,000 Durham County residents between 25 and 44 who lack a post-secondary credential – a certificate or associate degree – nearly a third of that population. They are living in one of the state’s most dynamic local economies, but they are blocked from many good-paying jobs.

“When you’re 32 years old, you’re not going to take two years out,” says Buxton. “We want them to give us four or five months, get into the industry.” If they then want to go beyond the basic training, and get an associate degree and even transfer to a university, “we can create that pathway as well. This investment allows us to expand the short-terms as well at the long-term programs.”

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