ECU Gets $1.9M Golden LEAF Grant for Pharmaceutical Workforce Growth
The Golden LEAF Foundation has awarded nearly $1.9 million to help East Carolina University expand its burgeoning pharmaceutical manufacturing workforce training program.
The $1,899,350 grant to ECU’s Eastern Region Pharma Center covers equipment and personnel costs to enable students entering various careers in pharmaceutical manufacturing to earn four-year degrees from ECU without leaving their home communities, and for professional development for existing workers. The state’s pharmaceutical companies can also use the lab equipment to develop and test new manufacturing processes.
ECU is working with Thermo Fisher Scientific and Novo Nordisk and partnering with Pitt, Johnston, Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe community colleges to provide the first two years of training leading to the four-year degree.
The area known as the BioPharma Crescent in eastern North Carolina has become a center of pharmaceutical manufacturing. Pitt, Johnston, Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties are home to a variety of pharmaceutical companies, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Mayne Pharma, Novo Nordisk, Grifols, Pfizer and CMP Pharma.
Pharmaceutical Services Network formed in 2018
The region has rallied to develop hands-on programs to train workers for well-paying jobs in pharmaceutical manufacturing since the 2018 opening of the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Services Network’s training sites at both Pitt Community College (PCC) and ECU.
Harry Ploehn, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Technology and the ECU project’s leader, said the Pharma Center brings ECU and regional assets together to benefit eastern North Carolina.
“With better coordination across the BioPharma Crescent counties, all of the partners — including industry, community colleges and ECU — will be more effective at recruiting students into lucrative, rewarding careers in the pharmaceutical industry, not to mention retaining our talent in the region,” he said. “This is truly a ‘grow local’ approach to provide the workforce our industry partners need to thrive here.”
The new funding to ECU comes on the heels of awards Golden LEAF made earlier for the regional jobs programs, including a $1.1 million grant in 2015 to ECU and a $650,000 grant to PCC for their roles in the Network.
It’s part of a statewide effort to stay ahead of the fast-growing need for a job-ready workforce in the field. North Carolina has one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing clusters in the nation, employing more than 26,000 people. It grew by more than 11% in 2020 alone. Life sciences companies from around the state, nation and world announced expansions in 2020 that will bring nearly $2 billion in investment and more than 3,500 new jobs to North Carolina. Workers of all types — from scientists and skilled laborers to recent graduates or those considering a career change — are finding jobs in biopharma manufacturing.
NCBiotech launches Bio Jobs Hub to help recruit workers
The growth of the industry also puts North Carolina in a position to help people losing jobs to the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic downturn. In fact, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech) has just launched a Bio Jobs Hub to help displaced workers make the transition into pharmaceutical manufacturing careers. NCBiotech is also spearheading recruitment programs for transitioning military veterans and spouses into fulfilling careers in pharmaceutical manufacturing.
The Pharmaceutical Services Network is a one-of-a-kind collaboration that provides a continuum of pharmaceutical education and training to new and existing companies in North Carolina and beyond. Services were developed with significant industry input and can be customized to accommodate specific company needs.
At ECU, the Network prepares chemistry, biochemistry, and biology students to become potential hires. It also offers seminars and short courses to support current industry employees, with a focus on laboratory-based education and training.
The PCC program provides an industry overview, including requirements for working in a regulated environment, and specifics on the unique requirements of key manufacturing types. The training is designed for current and newly hired workers, using its pilot-scale manufacturing environment and lab equipment to teach oral solid dosage theory and manufacturing techniques, as well as requirements for working in sterile/aseptic environments for production of injectable medications.
Three regional economic development partners have also recently supported the pharmaceutical workforce program with funding:
- $400,000 from the Pitt County Development Commission
- $100,000 from the Greenville ENC Alliance
- $100,000 from an NCBiotech Economic Development Award
Mark Phillips, NCBiotech’s vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the Eastern Region Office in Greenville, said the Golden LEAF grant “serves as a phenomenal step in workforce training and talent development. The students and citizens of eastern North Carolina will have an opportunity to train for a vast number of career opportunities, within all levels of the industry.
'A wide range of opportunity'
“People tend to have the sense that everybody who works in pharmaceutical manufacturing must have a Ph.D., and that’s just not true,” added Phillips, who was instrumental in bringing together the partners that formed the Network. “There are hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees at these pharmaceutical sites. Many of the roles are attainable with a high school diploma, while others require either A.A., B.S./B.A. or graduate degrees. The point here is there is a very wide range of opportunity in the pharmaceutical manufacturing arena, and this new Golden LEAF grant will help with the skills and training needs, to start and grow a successful career within the pharmaceutical industry.”
Kelly Andrews, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission, agreed. The Commission is a government agency that recruits and supports industry in the county. “The Golden LEAF grant adds an enormous boost to our pharma-based workforce-development efforts. In Pitt County, pharma employment represents about one-third of our manufacturing jobs. That’s why Pitt County as a community is ‘all in’ to provide the right training, fill these jobs, and create a talent pipeline for the future.”
Brad Hufford, vice president of business development for the Greenville ENC Alliance, stressed the importance of all these funding decisions. “This will support the education and workforce development efforts of Pitt County Public Schools, PCC and ECU to build a solid pipeline to the high-tech, well-paying jobs of the future that are available right here in our own backyard. The new Life Science and Biotechnology building at ECU will serve as an anchor for our workforce development efforts to train the next generation of employees on cutting-edge manufacturing processes.”
The Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to receive one-half of the funds coming to North Carolina from the master settlement agreement with cigarette manufacturers. In turn, the Foundation is helping North Carolinians make the transition from a tobacco-dependent economy through grants and investments that will positively affect the long-term economic advancement of the state. It gives priority in its grantmaking to tobacco-dependent and economically distressed counties.