By George Lorenzo – Published July 14, 2021 by Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter
The National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program currently supports 352 active projects and 26 active centers. Every ATE project and center has its own vibe and unique network of colleagues doing deep and honest work in their respective fields.
For this ATE feature article (our fourth one – see the ATE category), we talked with Linnea Fletcher, Principal Investigator for InnovateBIO, the Austin Community College (ACC)-based National Biotechnology Education Center. Fletcher has a PhD in microbiology with a three-decades-long career in biotechnology. She currently serves as ACC’s Biotechnology Department Chair and holds the distinction of starting the ACC Biotechnology Program in 1999.
Diverse Network, Positive Job Outlook
As noted in its 2019 estimated 5-year $7.5 million grant abstract, the Center concentrates “on biotechnology technician education across the country, with a specific focus on strengthening the connections between high school and community college biotechnology programs.” The Center serves “a diverse network of educators, students, alumni, and industry partners, including incubators, trade organizations, and professional societies.”
“We’re all about communicating and networking,” Fletcher says, “because what these programs [two-year and shorter] find hard to do is recruit students.” People still have pejorative views related to community college degree holders and their ability to obtain decent jobs. However, “you can get ahead with a two-year degree in biotechnology,” Fletcher says, adding that 50% of students enrolled in the various biotechnology degree and certificate programs offered by ACC “already have four-year degrees.”
InnovateBIO is a membership organization with a website that overflows with numerous important resources that help students, employers, and institutions obtain information that overall helps educators build out our nation’s biotechnology curricula at community colleges and ultimately a competent biotech labor force that continues to grow in importance, especially since COVID-19 has driven many biotech companies to dramatically increase their investments in infectious disease research.
InnovateBIO’s membership consists of 124 college biotechnology programs from all over the U.S., 91 high school affiliates, 130 students, and 938 high school or community college instructors. Fletcher says her main job is to serve the 124 programs, and the overall focus is on educating and training biotech technicians. Career Explorer defines biotechnicians as follows: “Biotechnology is a combination of biology, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. A biotechnician works with scientists and biologists on solving problems dealing with living organisms. They help scientists do a variety of things, such as find cures for diseases, help develop the next wonder drug, improve the food we grow, and change the way we use DNA.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employment of biological technicians is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. Continued growth in biotechnology and medical research is expected to increase demand for these workers.” In addition, “the median annual wage for biological technicians was $46,340 in May 2020.”
Partnerships & Outreach are Key
Innovate BIO helps to create partnerships between educational programs and biotechnology industry and trade organizations with the goal in mind of educating learners for careers in biotechnology. “Many of our alumni of these  programs now have different careers other than technicians,” Fletcher explains. “They did not just stay in technician positions. They moved off into CEOs, or managers, or supervisors.” Because of upward mobility factors, InnovateBIO looks at the entire and constantly changing career pathways in the field of biotechnology starting from high school up through the C-Suite.
“That’s why we invite students and alumni to join, and why we have an InnovateBIO LinkedIn group – because we want to know where they go and what they’re doing,” Fletcher says. “And we actually help them get jobs elsewhere across the country if they decide to change positions. That’s why we have faculty join. Because essentially, not only do we want their programs to be part of that, we want faculty to be part of it, in case they want to make changes. And that’s why we organize with all the USA manufacturing Institutes [and employers an industry advisory boards].”
Another Innovate BIO major activity is its Biotech hubs. “Each Hub is a ‘go-to’ place for specific expertise to create and support biotech programs at community colleges.” Currently there are six hubs:
- Alumni Network & Teacher Mentoring | Austin Community College, Austin, TX
- Industry & Workforce Development | Forsyth Technical Community College, Winston Salem, NC
- Student Research | Finger Lakes Community College, Canandaigua, NY
- Student Supply Chain | Bay Area Biotechnology Education Community, South San Francisco, CA
- Cell Therapy & Immunology | Shoreline Community College, Shoreline, WA
- Genomics | DNA Learning Center New York City, Brooklyn, NY
There’s are many more valuable resources provided by InnovateBIO, including an ATE Biotechnology Projects section, the High School Mentor Network, an Undergraduate Research section, a Leadership Institute, and an Innovations section. Also, special events are constantly being updated and listed for attending on the near horizon.
“We’re encouraging all organizations, all trade organizations, everyone to become a member of InnovateBIO,” Fletcher says. “We have to keep up with all emerging trends in the industry, because that will all impact the workforce.”
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