Biomanufacturing is constantly evolving, developing new treatments and therapies through cutting-edge methodologies and facing increasing integration of big data and analytics. But keeping up with innovation in this segment requires a workforce with advanced skill sets. The US State of Rhode Island (RI), with a rich manufacturing history and a thriving biotechnology sector, has taken on that challenge. We are preparing a robust talent pool — the greater Providence area contains over 1.6 million people — to become the highly skilled workforce that RI companies need. We’ve invested over US$40 million in workforce-development efforts since 2015.
Rather than relying on past approaches to workforce development, however, RI has spearheaded an innovative, demand-driven initiative to ensure that employees are trained to do exactly what companies are looking for. If businesses need employees with certain skills or knowledge, eventually market forces will generate the necessary supply. But that can take months or often years — far too long for a rapidly changing industry to wait and far too long for people seeking to fill open positions.
That’s where Real Jobs RI comes in. This signature workforce-development program creates demand-driven, public–private partnerships to meet businesses’ specific needs in and beyond the biotechnology segment. Instead of a general menu of workforce solutions, Real Jobs RI gathers companies, higher-education institutions, state organizations, and other partners to develop custom, scalable programs that support businesses and citizens alike. It gives Rhode Islanders a competitive advantage and access to career opportunities in high-demand industries while providing companies with a requisitely skilled workforce.
Businesses know what they need from the labor market and where pain points are, so having industry take the lead allows training programs not only to provide the necessary skills for today, but also to understand how those needs evolve over time. Real Jobs RI initiatives address the entire workforce, from programs that upskill current employees to those that develop a future pipeline of highly skilled workers. Since its 2015 launch, more than 8,000 Rhode Islanders have developed new skills or gained employment through a Real Jobs RI activity, and more than 1,200 businesses have benefited directly from that.
Amgen provides one example. In 2018, it announced that it would open a next-generation biomanufacturing plant in West Greenwich, RI (1). A main factor for expanding there was access to talent. But instead of solely training a few dozen process technologists, Amgen is creating a network to shape its workforce. Real Jobs RI brought Amgen together with educators from public colleges and universities to work through actionable workforce solutions to address the needs of the entire biomanufacturing sector. To date, five custom projects have emerged from these partnerships, which combine Amgen’s significant expertise — from its headquarters in California to its next-generation AR30 plant in Singapore — with the resources of the University of Rhode Island and Community College of Rhode Island. Amgen annually reevaluates its needs to prioritize where resources are most needed in the coming year. That flexible, adaptive approach ensures that companies can meet today’s needs while still planning for the future.
Real Jobs RI not only trains workers for large companies, but it also works directly with industry organizations to provide targeted training across the ecosystem. A 2016 Brookings report identified medical technology as a critical segment in RI for economic growth (2). However, it also identified a lack of trained small-business leaders with familiarity in regulated product development. With the help of Real Jobs RI, industry groups such as RI Bio — which runs the Life Sciences Leader Development Training — and the New England Medical Innovation Center (NEMIC) are providing the resources and guidance needed to train the next generation of medical innovators and leaders.
NEMIC worked with Real Jobs RI to create the Med Tech Leadership Program, designed to help entrepreneurs navigate the highly regulated medical-device world and give them tools to bring innovative ideas to market. Real Jobs RI makes this program free of charge to RI entrepreneurs. The end result is a collaborative innovation ecosystem that connects industry professionals dedicated to bringing new therapies and technologies to market with scientists, researchers, and students at local colleges and universities.
As the economy continues to change, nimble, demand-driven programs will help keep workers’ skills up to date, ensuring that the economy remains strong. Real Jobs RI offers a model for other states, provinces, and regions to support the growing biopharmaceutical industry.
1 Amgen Breaks Ground on Next-Generation Biomanufacturing Plant in Rhode Island. Amgen: Thousand Oaks, CA, 2018; https://www.amgen.com/media/news-releases/2018/07/amgen-breaks-ground-on-next-generation-biomanufacturing-plant-in-rhode-island.
2 Rhode Island Innovates: A Competitive Strategy for the Ocean State. Brookings Institution: Washington, DC, 2016; https://www.brookings.edu/research/rhode-island-innovates-a-competitive-strategy-for-the-ocean-state.
Scott R. Jensen is director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training; 1511 Pontiac Avenue, Cranston, RI 02920; 1-401-462-8000. Learn more about Real Jobs RI and the Med Tech Leadership Program at https://www.dlt.ri.gov/realjobs.