Innovative Workforce Programs Ensure Bio-Manufacturing Success

Back in 2018, walking away from a conversation with North Pitt High School sophomore Diana De Leon, Mark Phillips knew he wanted to help her. He just needed to figure out how. 

Mark is North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Vice President of Statewide Operations and Executive Director of its Eastern Regional Office in the public power city of Greenville, North Carolina. 

Diana’s interest in both the medical and engineering fields—and the fact that she was rebuilding a Mustang with her brother—inspired Mark. On the way to his next meeting, the idea for the Pharma K12 Workforce Development Training Initiative came together. 

He partnered with Greenville-based Thermo Fisher Scientific to make it happen, launching a pilot program in 2019. 

North Carolina Pharmaceutical Services Network instructor 
Mike Renn guides Pharma K12 Workforce Development 
Training Initiative participants at Pitt Community College. 
-Photo by Pitt Co. Development Commission, 2019

The program enables high school graduates to participate in two and a half days of pharmaceutical manufacturing training at the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Services Network at Pitt Community College. They can do it as soon as the week following graduation. Along with learning good manufacturing practices and working in a regulated environment, students gain hands-on experience with equipment. 

“Four years into the program, we’ve had 24 of these young high school students hired, and of those 24, 21 are still working at Thermo Fisher Scientific,” Mark says. Diana is one of them. 

A recent grant from the U.S. Economic Development Association is enabling Mark and team to expand the program to up to 96 students over the next three years. It’s also enabling them to get the word out across the state about what a career in life sciences means. 

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) is a competitive federal grant program developed by the Economic Development Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. It aims to build strong regional economies and support community-led economic development nationwide. The program strives to share the benefits of the cluster equitably across all affected communities, both urban and rural, including efforts to reach historically excluded populations, racial minorities, and women. BBBRC projects seeks to create good-paying jobs, catalyze emerging industries, and prepare a workforce needed to drive economic growth.        

“It does not mean you’ve got to have a four-year degree or a two-year degree,” he says. “It means that these career opportunities are there, and wherever you are along your career pathway, there’s an opportunity for you.” 

Tommy Schornak, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Vice President and General Manager in Greenville, told NC Biotech, “We see the Pharma K12 program providing the longer-term pipeline of local talent into our organization to support our growth and expansion in the coming years.” 

In Johnston County, educational biopharma public-private partnerships are targeting even younger students.

Discover the Plasma is a collaboration between Grifols, Johnston County Schools, and Johnston Community College that brings real-world science curriculum to every eighth grader in Johnston County Schools. Using virtual labs, videos, and other engaging tools, students learn about plasma and the life-saving plasma-derived medications being made at the Grifols plant in the public power town of Clayton—the largest in the world producing plasma medications. 

Along with that education, Chris Johnson, Director of Johnston County Economic Development, says students can connect the dots between what they’re doing in the program and a career-making $70,000-$80,000 a year. 

The JOCO WORKS program, sponsored by Novo Nordisk, Johnston County Public Schools, and Johnston Community College, is a two-day career fair that enables every Johnston County eighth grader to be exposed to the county’s top employers across a range of industries. Chris says the program dives deep into all aspects of the industries. 

“When you think of life sciences or pharmaceutical, you think of somebody sitting there making pills,” he says. We may not think of the machines involved, the robotics, or the facilities management. The fair shows students that there’s “so much beyond the chemistry part of it,” he says. 

For bio-manufacturing companies looking to locate or expand in North Carolina, these and other innovative training programs provide assurance that a skilled and ready workforce can continue to drive success well into the future.

This story is from the Spring 2023 edition of “Developments,” a publication of ElectriCities’ Corporate Communications team in coordination with ElectriCities’ Economic Development team. Learn more at

Dan Werdel, ElectriCities
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