Training program refueling biotech sector

A labor shortage in San Mateo County’s biotechnology sector is slowly being addressed, thanks to a Bay Area program training out-of-work manufacturing employees to perform medical manufacturing tasks.

The three-year, $2 million pilot program concluded in June and trained 240 workers for biotech jobs. It has been so successful that a new $1 million grant from the California Employment Development Department will expand the program in the East Bay, according to Patty Castro, assistant director for the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board.

But the training concept was born on the Peninsula, created by biotech giant Genentech, the San Mateo County Workforce Investment Board and Skyline College, according to Supervisor Mark Church. Roughly 170 of the new workers were trained at Skyline.

“There is a work-force shortage in biotech, particularly in those entry-level positions,” Church said. “There’s no question that biotech is the driving force behind our economy, and if we’re going to sustain that industry, we need to fill that shortage.”

Since 2004, the fastest-growing jobs have been in biotechnology — on every level, from medical scientists and engineers to workers who deal with medical samples and operate the machines, according to the state Employment Development Department. Biotech jobs are expected to grow anywhere from 45 to 88 percent by 2014. But the labor pool hasn’t kept up, Church said.

At the same time, the post-2001 tourism slump left hundreds of airline employees without work, according to Castro.

“They looked like good candidates for biotech, because they knew how to work in restricted environments and to record everything they do,” Castro said. Now, the program is open to all qualified ex-manufacturing workers.

Students undergo a six-month, intensive-training program during which they learn basic biology, biomanufacturing, chemistry and gain an introduction to the field, according to Tricia Cosaro, a spokeswoman for Genentech.

Almost all of the trainees have been placed in biotech jobs — and most are making more money than they were before.

“Our goal was to have them making $35,000 a year, but most are making $42,000 or $43,000 at the entry level,” Castro said.

One such student was working in a chicken-processing plant before getting a job as a baggage handler at SFO. But then she was laid off — and got accepted to the Skyline program, according to William Watson, director of the training program at Skyline College.

“She’s now working at a nice job in a great company, and she put her son through an Ivy League university,” Watson said.

As the training program expands in the East Bay, local officials hope to bring it to College of San Mateo and Cañada College as well, Church said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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