NC’s Life Science Manufacturers Draw Many Rural, Commuting Workers

To those who think biotechnology in North Carolina is an urban industry suited only for the Research Triangle, Piedmont Triad or Greater Charlotte regions, Mark Phillips has some eye-opening data that will nix that perception.

A survey of 14 biomanufacturing and other life science companies east of Raleigh shows a dramatic jobs impact on rural counties as well as urban areas, says Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the Eastern Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

The surveyed companies, collectively employing nearly 8,000 workers, draw many of their employees from 59 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, most of them rural, the survey found.

"Employees are willing to commute great distances to work in the life sciences sector,” Phillips says.

That’s likely due to the industry’s high salaries and good benefits, he says.

Many of those employees commute from several counties away. Others who live too far to commute daily stay in rented accommodations during the work week and return home on the weekends, Phillips says.

Goldsboro to Greenville every day

Goldsboro commuter Ron Rogers
Ron Rogers commutes 76 miles each way from Goldsboro to Greenville

Ron Rogers commutes 76 miles each way from Goldsboro to Greenville for his job as director of facilities at Mayne Pharma, a contract-manufacturing plant for pharmaceuticals that employs over 400 people. Those 400 people commute from 23 counties.

“Mayne Pharma Inc. is an outstanding company to work for,” says Rogers. “They have made a tremendous capital investment in the site, which dictates the future is bright here, and I also believe in what we’re doing. We are providing products that help millions of people around the world. That makes you feel pretty good at the end of the day.”

Rogers typically makes the 1.5-hour commute five days a week unless a big project requires him to stay overnight in Greenville. He spends the time listening to the car radio and planning his work day.

“It can get old,” admits Rogers, who has commuted for 16-plus years. “It makes you appreciate everything that the North Carolina Department of Transportation does to keep the roads up, and pot holes at a minimum. It cannot be stated enough how important the roads and infrastructure are to North Carolina and its citizens. I have worked in numerous places across the U.S., and North Carolina has some of the best roads, best signage, etc., over other states. The roads and infrastructure are vital to North Carolina’s continued growth and attracting new businesses into the state.”

Rogers braves the commute not only for a good job at Mayne but because his family is well established in Goldsboro, a town that’s close enough to the Research Triangle region if he lost his job in Greenville and needed to commute to another bioscience company.

Several of Rogers’ colleagues at Mayne also make long commutes to Greenville from small towns throughout rural North Carolina including Bear Grass, Clayton, Kinston, Louisburg, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Washington and Wilson.

Phillips says in his business travels across the state he is often asked what the bioscience industry is doing in a particular county, frequently a rural one. The question prompted him to begin surveying companies in 2016 and again in 2017 for their employee-commuting patterns.

Survey proved eye opening

“It was really eye opening when I started delving into it,” he says. “I really wanted to show the impact on rural counties. It’s quite impactful.”

His survey concentrated on the eastern region’s largest life science employers, which tend to be drug-manufacturing plants. Most of those companies employ between 100 and 2,000 workers in rural counties such as Johnston, Nash, Pitt and Wilson.

“I really wanted to make sure we understood how important the life sciences were in North Carolina and not just in the Research Triangle or Piedmont Triad areas,” Phillips says. “It is very evident that many rural areas are impacted.”>

For example, Grifols, which employs 1,600 in Clayton, has employees commuting from 29 counties for jobs producing plasma-derived medicines. Pfizer, which employs 2,000 in Rocky Mount, also draws employees from 29 counties to produce injectable medicines.

Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
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