South Florida Hospital News
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March 2005 - Volume 1 - Issue 8

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Workforce Alliance’s Biotech Training Program Off to an Encouraging Start

An effort by Workforce Alliance, Inc. of Palm Beach County to encourage more people to pursue careers in the biotechnology industry has taken on an international flavor.

Workforce Alliance administers the unique program involving federally-funded college course work, and, according to Debora Kerr, Director of Resource Development and Manager of the Biotech Program for Workforce Alliance, initial response has been "very encouraging."

"The program began ahead of schedule and seventeen people began the first session in January," Kerr said of the one-year Biotechnology Certification Program. "That group includes individuals who earned their BS and/or MS degrees from universities in Taiwan, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Canada and Cuba. All of them live and work in this region."


Displaying the check for $2.3-million from the U.S. Department of Labor are (left to right) Debora Kerr, Director of Resource Development; William J. Wood, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Kathryn Schmidt, President and CEO, of Workforce Alliance, Inc. of Palm Beach County, and Emily Stover DeRocco, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training.

A $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative last year set Workforce Alliance to administer the training of skilled workers from other industries and career sectors into the high-demand field of biotechnology and related occupations. The federal grant will fund college course work for Palm Beach County residents through Florida Atlantic University and for residents of Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties through Indian River Community College’s distance learning classes.

"We like to call it our international grant now," Kerr said.

A decision by the Scripps Research Institute (SRI), a major biomedical research, technology, development and drug design organization, to expand with a new facility in Palm Beach County complemented the Workforce Alliance retraining project. Scripps, one of the world’s largest private, non-profit biomedical research firms, is based in LaJolla, California. SRI was lauded by Florida Governor Jeb Bush as "the brand name in biomedical research" in 2004 when the firm chose to come to Palm Beach County.

"We are honored they have chosen Florida to expand their current research facilities," Governor Bush told South Florida Hospital News writer Dave Marko in July 2004. "They have a proven track record of working closely with local industry, businesses and university systems in California and we eagerly anticipate the same kind of partnership."

Kerr echoed similar sentiments.

"It certainly was a big boost to our original program design," Kerr said. "In reality, our project (biotech training) started before Scripps decided to come to Palm Beach County. We were very fortunate and are deeply grateful that they chose Palm Beach County. The fact that they chose our area when many other regions were available is a distinct reflection of what we have to offer. Scripps will serve as the catalyst for the development of small biotechnology businesses, ancillary services such as pharmaceutical companies. Their presence here is a win-win situation for everyone in our partnership."

Kerr explained that, in addition to the Scripps Research Institute, Workforce Alliance and the Workforce Development Board of the Treasure Coast are working in partnership with Florida Atlantic University, Indian River Community College, and regional biotechnology employers to present the innovative project called FAU Biotech Training Program. (FAU-BTP).

"This project will upgrade the skill levels of those currently employed in biotechnology jobs and retrain individuals with a BS or MS in math or science who have been displaced from transitioning/declining industries for a new career in emerging biotechnology industries," she said. "Instead of the traditional career ladder concept, we see this as a career lattice move, enhancing existing skills for an emerging industry. The participants are going to benefit from their studies and the biotechnology industry will benefit by having more qualified workers available to them."

Participants are being recruited through Workforce One-Stops and Career Centers throughout the Treasure Coast and South Florida.

Kerr said the training grant from the federal government allows FAU-BTP to establish a biotech curriculum development in the first year of operation that will lead to a post bacalaureate level certificate in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics and continue development of a Bachelor of Science to Master of Science program in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology through course work and training in advanced lab techniques. Lecture classes emanate from Florida Atlantic University and are transmitted to Indian River Community College via distance learning applications.

Kerr said participants who excel academically in FAU-BTP will be awarded one-year lab research internships at FAU. Local biotech employers are being approached about providing apprenticeship opportunities to participants in the certification programs. Skills upgrading in biotechnology fields can lead to careers as senior technicians, lab specialists and research specialists, Kerr said, adding that these positions carry annual salaries of between $50,000 and $60,000.

"We’re looking to involve 110 people in the course work over the next three years," Kerr said.

An Eligibility Committee screens the applicants, who must meet stringent criteria to enter the program.

Additional information and application forms are available by going to the Biotechnology Training link on the Workforce Alliance web site at www.pbcalliance.com. Applicants and others interested in the program (including employers) also may contact Susan Teubel at (561) 616-5200, ext. 377 or Kerr at (561) 837-5500, ext. 219 at Workforce Alliance.

While the initial session of course work began in January, another round of classes will start this summer.

"The main kickoff will come in the fall," Kerr said. "So we are still seeking applicants and anyone who is interested and meets the criteria for eligibility should apply."

As a leader in workforce programs, Workforce Alliance is "pioneering new ground" as it seeks to retrain and upgrade skills for the biotech industry, Kerr said. The project covers everything from the development of advancement for the biomed-biotech industry (including K-12 preparation in schools in the region) to the crafting of a Master’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology.

Meanwhile, the Scripps Research Institute is working out of temporary quarters on the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University while it constructs a cutting-edge, 364,00 square foot facility on 100 acres to be occupied in 2006. The project is expected to create some 545 jobs including scientists, technicians and support personnel. Florida state legislators have appropriated $31-million spread over seven years to cover start-up costs.

SRI President Richard A. Lerner, M.D., told Dave Marko of Hospital News the expansion of Scripps to Florida "will increase the scope and depth of significant research in biomedical science."

"The synergy between Scripps biomedical research in California and Florida is expected to lead major new developments to improve human health," Lerner said.

Kathryn Schmidt, President and CEO of Workforce Alliance, Inc., sees the decision by Scripps and the biotech training as another major boost for the job market and the economy of the region.

"The emergence of the Scripps Research Institute as a major industry here and a magnet for other biotechnology companies means that people with biotechnology skills and degrees will be in high demand," Schmidt said. "We encourage area residents with degrees in math, science and other related fields who have been displaced from their jobs because of transitioning or declining business to be qualified for those jobs when they materialize. That’s what this program will do.

"With more people working, it will stimulate the economy," Schmidt said. "Not only will they be taking home paychecks, but they’ll also be generating tax revenues on the local, county and state levels and, because they’re local residents, they’ll be purchasing goods and services locally. All of that is in keeping with our basic mission to train and prepare people well for the workforce."

Debora Kerr can be reached (561) 837-5500 ext. 219, dkerr@pbcalliance.com or visit www.pbcalliance.com.
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