Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Responding to the growing number of jobs in the biotechnology industry, the U.S. Department of Labor is investing $17.2 million in model projects designed to train future biotech workers.

The industry, identified by the government as one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy, has quadrupled in size since 1992, Emily DeRocco, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, told BioWorld Today. Furthermore, by 2007, the Department of Labor expects the U.S. industry to employ about 815,000 people. (That's up from about 700,000 in 2002, the most recent statistic.)

Therefore, the industry, via the education system and local and state training programs, is due to receive a healthy financial boost from the government through the president's High Growth Job Training Initiative.

Selected from a pool of unsolicited applications, the government already has agreed to fund nine initiatives that will serve as models for future projects, which will be funded locally, by the state or through a competitive federal grant system.

Of the nine programs, DeRocco's office in June awarded the Alameda Workforce Investment Board (WIB), located in the San Francisco Bay area, $2 million to collaborate with the San Mateo, Calif.-based WIB to expand and refine a pilot program to train entry-level biotech manufacturing technicians. The project would prepare 150 entry-level personnel and would retrain 40 dislocated engineers from the airline, aerospace and IT sectors for positions in facilities management, quality control and project engineering.

In another case, the labor department granted the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse (PLSG) $2.4 million to help it match trained personnel with local biotechnology companies. PLSG and partners, including the Community College of Allegheny County and the Allegheny County Job Link, will use the money to develop curriculum and training that will combine industry skills sets and academic disciplines.

Indeed, in interviewing biotech executives about the work force challenges they face, DeRocco said government officials found there is concern about expanding the pipeline of youths who are knowledgeable and interested in biotechnology careers and who might be interested in working as technicians and support staff for researchers and scientists.

Thus, she said, there seems to be a need for equipping community colleges as alternatives for post-secondary education to train future employees.

But beyond that, DeRocco said industry leaders worry that the careers and occupations within biotechnology are so new that they have not been defined and that competency models have not been identified, making it difficult to train educators on what to teach.

Lastly, DeRocco said, industry leaders are interested in learning how to access new labor pools such as immigrants and individuals with disabilities.

She said in the fall the department expects to advertise for its competitive grants.

The ideal recipient would be a partnership that includes, at minimum, employers in the biotechnology industry, educators from all levels and the public work force or training system.

Additional information can be obtained by visiting the Department of Labor's employment and training website at www.dol.eta.gov.

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