May / June 2023

Addressing the shortage of skilled workers

Scott Fotheringham, PhD
Addressing the shortage of skilled workers

The success of the biopharmaceutical industry and the expansion of manufacturing facilities, of both existing companies and newcomers, has put a strain on the number of temporary and permanent skilled workers needed to fill many positions in the Triangle.

“Fifty years ago, the focus was much more on research and innovation partnerships than providing a talent pipeline for future employees,” said Christopher Chung, CEO, EDPNC. “The talent piece is actually more important now to pharma companies.”

“We have people coming to North Carolina every day,” said Bo Crouse-Feuerhelm, Vice President, Client Solutions, J.E. Dunn Construction Company. “All of these companies have openings, including ours—we are always looking for technical talent in construction.” She noted that, historically, the Triangle has not had to deal with workers jumping from one company to another the way this happens in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a nucleus of companies. But it does now. “It’s become a challenge for existing companies to keep talent, with all the new companies coming to the region. We are also seeing it happen in the design and construction space too.”

As is the case with so much in the Triangle, solutions to this challenge are coming from many angles. Recently, the NC Biotech led a diverse coalition of companies, universities, community colleges, government agencies, and organizations that was awarded a $25 million grant from the US Economic Development Agency, for a program they call “Accelerate NC - Life Sciences Manufacturing.”

“This grant will allow us to build a collaborative program to increase life science manufacturing career opportunities for traditionally underserved communities,” said Bill Bullock, Senior Vice President, Economic Development and Statewide Operations, NC Biotech.

Crouse-Feuerhelm sees the need to recruit from outside the region in pharmaceutical stronghold metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, DC, and Chicago to diversify the talent pool a necessity. She noted the example of Eli Lilly, which is investing nearly $1.5 billion in two manufacturing plants: one in Concord, near Charlotte, and one in RTP. “There isn’t yet the same concentration of pharmaceutical talent in the Charlotte area, which is currently known for banking and commercial businesses. Lilly’s going to change up that space with its campus and will have to retrain and recruit.”

“We assure companies that while talent is not easy to find anywhere in the current environment, it will be easier in North Carolina because of our population growth, as well as thanks to assets like our community college system, which essentially pioneered the concept of customized training for a specific employer,” said Chung. “There’s no place where there’s 5,000 skilled biopharmaceutical manufacturing employees sitting around unemployed waiting for the phone to ring.”

Instead, he sees part of the solution being to help workers transition into this industry. North Carolina has the advantage that, every year, as many as 20,000 military personnel from Fort Bragg and Camp Lagoon exit active-duty service and re-enter civilian life. “That’s a relatively untapped tranche of talent available for employers that are expanding in North Carolina,” said Chung.

Student training is also important, through such programs as ISPE’s Student Chapters. “We are cultivating talent from the regional universities, as well as providing ISPE student memberships at no cost to interns on the client side,” said Bud Watts, President of CaSA. “We are undertaking an aggressive expansion of our student chapter outreach program, working with more than a dozen universities and tech schools.”

As with so much in Research Triangle, it is a combined effort that will help solve this challenge.