California’s Life Sciences Biotech Sector Is Good for Its Economic Health

580 200 Ed Coghlan

(Photo Credit: Solano/MiraCosta Colleges)

California is a state—maybe like no other state—where innovators are a major positive dynamic in our economy. No economic sector is driven by innovation more that the state’s remarkable Life Sciences Biotech Sector. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has identified it as one of ten sectors where the need for a pipeline of trained workers exists. Terri Quenzer is the Colleges' Sector Navigator for the Life Sciences Biotech sector and she recently answered some questions about her work.

1. What makes Life Sciences Biotech such critical components of California's economy? 

California leads the world in Life Sciences innovation and is the number one state for Life Sciences employment with over 311,000 direct jobs and 958,000 total jobs, including direct, indirect, and induced jobs. The 3,400+ Life Sciences companies in California are mostly Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical or Medical Equipment and Device Manufacturing with over 1,300 therapies in the pipeline and over 450 approved medical devices. The Life Sciences industry has generated $178 Billion in total revenue with $25 billion in total biomedical exports. And the industry is growing—California is number one with $7.6 billion in Life Sciences Venture Capital investment. At $3.9 billion, California is the top state for Digital Health Venture Capital investment.

2. What are employers telling you that they need from the community colleges for workforce development?

Life Sciences employers are telling us that the top skills they seek are teamwork/collaboration, quality assurance/quality control, and biotechnology. While many companies anticipate expanding their employee headcount across quality and regulatory, they also find that these functional areas are among the most difficult for employers to fill.

3. What successes are you having with employers already—and how are students benefiting? (an example or two)

The companies that hire our students have been extremely pleased with the quality of those students. Most hiring managers report that hiring community college students trained with skills in biotech/biomanufacturing cuts both their training time and cost roughly by half. And the students benefit as well by not only having skills needed to work in the industry, but also having more confidence in their skills as well as the ability to present themselves to employers. Many of the biotech programs invite industry representatives to campus to hold mock interviews for college students, and it’s not uncommon for the mock interview to become a real interview and for a student to land a job in the company for which that interviewer works.

One of my favorite success stories is about a high school student enrolled in a pilot dual enrollment program in biotech at Miramar College as a senior at Mira Mesa High School. Her lab partner worked in industry and took the class to sharpen his lab skills. Having worked with her in the lab and watched her develop her lab skills first-hand, he offered her a job at his company. She completed the semester with a high school diploma, a college certificate, and a job. 

4. We know that early learning opportunities—internships and other real world experiences—are a priority. How is that effort going?

Internships and other work-based learning opportunities and real world experiences are critical for preparing students to work in the industry as some skills can only be learned in a work environment. Many large companies throughout the state such as Genentech, Bayer, Grifols, Gilead/Kite, Amgen, Takeda, Allergan, and Illumina, as well as smaller companies offer internships to our students.

Biotech programs in the community colleges teach students basic lab skills, including how to follow standard operating procedures and other written procedures, how to perform common laboratory calculations, principles of Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) including documentation and equipment validation, as well as safety regulations, and many biotech programs are incorporating quality into their curriculum and preparing students for the Certified Quality Improvement Associate (CQIA) exam to address the industry need to fill quality-related positions.

Community college students also learn practical hands-on lab techniques including pipetting, how to make solutions, ELISA, PCR, and cell culture, and are well prepared for internship and apprenticeship opportunities in these companies. Our programs also teach soft skills, including resume writing and interview skills that enable students to better communicate with employers as well as team building, critical thinking, and troubleshooting skills.

We do face a shortage of internship opportunities for our students, limiting the number of community college students that get to become interns. Companies are reluctant to hire interns for several reasons, such as concerns over what work to assign to the intern, whether or not to pay the intern, how much time mentoring an intern might cut into work flow, issues concerning proprietary and/or intellectual property, potential cost of mistakes an intern might make, and potential liability.

To address these and other issues, the Life Sciences/Biotech Initiative is currently collaborating with the L.A. Bioscience Hub, Biocom, the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, and industry hiring managers and HR personnel to create an Internship Toolkit that will serve as a guide to help companies understand and navigate the ins and outs of setting up internship programs. Another resource for companies is Bio-Flex, the South Bay Workforce Investment Board (SBWIB) project, which is funded by several grants. Bio-Flex focuses on bioscience pre-apprenticeships and registered apprenticeships with financial support covering the cost of training and an opportunity to gain on the job experience at participating bioscience companies.

Another common issue is that internship opportunities open up, but the company is too far away and many students don’t have a way to get there because they don’t have cars, don’t have someone to drive them, and can’t afford transportation. Through programs such as BioSCOPE in the Bay Area and the Amgen Biotech Experience in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and the Inland Empire, the community colleges are creating work-based learning experiences on campus in which all biotech students can engage. In classes, workshops, or biotech clubs, biotech students manufacture products such as reagents and plates that are packaged and delivered to high schools for use in high school biotech lab experiments.

In addition to lab skills, the college students must apply quality and Good Manufacturing Practices including documentation, testing, and validation, while using appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to manufacture these products, because the products must produce the same result for any student that performs the experiment in any biotech lab at any high school. Not only do the college students benefit from these simulated work-based learning experiences, their products, which are free to the high schools, enable high schools to teach biotech experiments that could easily consume an entire year's lab budget. These products reach tens to over a hundred high schools and thousands of students every year.

5. Looking forward to the next year, what are the challenges and the opportunities in your sector? 

One of our biggest challenges is being in STEM industries, most of which believe that the B.S. degree is the “holy grail” for filling entry-level positions. We work hard to facilitate awareness among life science and biotech companies of the value of hiring trained and skilled community college students with less than a B.S. degree. If a company seeks to fill an entry-level position, most B.S. grads are “green” in terms of lab skills because most of the larger biology B.S. programs teach lecture classes with little to no lab training, and relatively few undergraduate students get experience working in a research lab on campus or doing an internship.

There is often high turnover of B.S. grads in entry-level positions because most that get hired use the opportunity to enter the industry, get some experience, and quickly move on. On the other hand, community college students are typically far more qualified for the entry-level positions because students finish community college biotech programs having completed at least 200 hours of hands-on lab skills training ( and are prepared to work in industry. And there is significantly less turnover because community college grads are much happier in their positions because those are the positions for which they intentionally trained.

With the help of Biocom, Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), SBWIB/ Bio-Flex, and SoCalBio, several companies throughout the state have been inviting area community college biotech faculty to tour their facilities and then engage in a round-table discussion with their HR personnel and hiring managers. The discussions address wants and needs on both sides. Faculty get a better understanding of the work environment for their students and the skills sought out by these companies while the employers are realizing the value of the community colleges in meeting their workforce needs. As a result, strong relationships are being established between community college biotech faculty and companies, more companies are finding value in community college students, and more internship and hiring opportunities are opening up for community college students.

Terri also shared with us some of the data mentioned here:

2019 California Life Sciences Industry Report:

2018 California Workforce Trends in the Life Science Industry:

2017 Life Sciences & Biotech Middle Skills Report:

Bio-Flex Pre-Apprenticeship:


Ed Coghlan

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