South Carolina’s life science sector creates twice as many jobs as the average of all other sectors in the state economy, according to a recent study, but whether it can fill those positions is another matter — especially in the manufacturing and logistics side of the house.
“It has historically been the majority of the time that you find a qualified person, they already have a job in M&L (manufacturing and logistics), so it has really been tough to fill the need,” said Josh Turner, a sales executive for Modjoul, a health-focused data analytics company that serves the manufacturing sector. Turner is also a former staffing professional.
He added that staffing companies pre-pandemic were filling positions with available people even if they weren’t trained or had any experience in the field.
“All I’ve heard since the pandemic is [that] it has been hard to even find available people, much less available and qualified people,” he said.
This gap is even more prominent in a life science field that sometimes requires more than the standard specialization or training. And to add insult to injury, few in-school training programs target this unique brand of manufacturing and logistics, said SCBIO interim CEO Erin Ford.
“The life sciences encompasses so many aspects from medical devices to pharmaceutical research and development to logistics in getting the drugs or pharmaceuticals or medical devices to where they need to be,” she said. “There's just so many aspects to the life sciences. And we really, as a state, have not focused on having any specific curriculum or programs that are specialized in this area.”
She argued that while the traditional medical careers such as nursing fall under the Life Science umbrella, industrial aspects of the sector often get overlooked in the classroom.
“It’s just not even a part of the discussion as to what career you want to have,” Ford said.
Since the economic development organization formed its Workforce Development Taskforce a few years ago, its more than 300 members have aimed to do something about that.
She hopes that 2021 (or early 2022) will be the year she can see their work come to fruition through a curriculum pilot geared toward two-year students in South Carolina’s technical college network.
Students upon learning about the field may often feel intimidated by the math or science components attached to a traditional science, technology, engineering and math field, she said, but really it’s the requirements of working in a clean room in the medical device field that can prove to be the most challenging.
And that is the gap Ford hopes the program will fill.
So far, Tri-County Technical College, Trident Technical College, Greenville Technical College and Midlands Technical College have signed on to the pilot, she said, which covers a track for pharmaceutical or biotech professionals and those seeking a career in the medical device field.
“We don't want to reinvent the wheel,” Ford said. “That's why we're working with a lot of the partners to add in more substance for life sciences. So if we see that there is more for us to do, we will definitely take that on.”
Life science companies in each region have already offered up some input to their needs and will continue to do so once the program launches: Trident Technical College has its ear to the ground for workforce demands of Alcami, Charles River Labs and Vikor Scientific while Tri-County Technical College is partnering with Arthrex, Abbott Laboratories and Poly-Med. Midlands Tech has an open channel to the demands of medical device companies Rhythmlink and Nephron Pharmaceuticals.
“You’ve seen the map, right? Of the 700 life science companies? The kids just don’t know,” she told GSA Business Report, adding that it’s the job of SCBIO and its partners to share the story of the state’s abundance of life science firms and manufacturers.
Medical device manufacturer Poly-med CEO Dave Shalaby said his company usually hires Clemson University graduates and has a strong in-house program, but now that the hiring climate has become so competitive in the Upstate, he has started to advise Tri-County Tech on courses that would expose students to the industry’s ISO 1345 standards and documentation.
“And really surprisingly, it's not really geared toward the sciences as much as it's geared toward control, like how to control processes and design, and also there's a lot of statistics involved with showing proof that you're adhering to specific specifications that you've set,” Shalaby said. “So basically the course outline that we set up with Tri-County is to give them exposure to those sorts of things.”
Tri-County instructors will teach company and industry requirements, he said, and help create a workforce pipeline to Poly-med, Arthrex and Abbott.
“Tri-County is developing that curriculum now,” he said. “They’ve got sort of a draft in place, and it’s got to come back out for everybody to take a look at it and see if it makes sense to create the course.”
The course would help prime students for employment at partnering industries like Poly-med, and Ford foresees a potential apprenticeship route on a case-by-case basis. SCBIO has been in conversation with Apprenticeship Carolina’s Carla Whitlock on those possibilities.
In the meantime, Ford encouraged other industry voices interested in contributing to the program through input or partnership to get in touch and jump on board.
“Reach out to us,” she said. “Reach out to me and SCBIO, because the more industry that we can have involved in these programs, the more successful it will be.”