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Vying For Biotech Boom, Cities Awaken To The Work Behind The Workforce

On Chicago’s South Side, the site of the defunct Michael Reese Hospital is poised to evolve into the $3.8B Bronzeville Lakefront development, a project backers say will reinvigorate the region with innovation and jobs after decades of investment dollars flowing out of the area.

With ambitions to create 31,000 full-time jobs, some of which will be located in the 500K SF Bronzeville Innovation Center and a biotech incubator called Chicago ARC, the development promises “future-focused jobs,” according to developers, one of many benefits that convinced the city to rezone the site and spend $60M on infrastructure.

But as the project breaks ground this year, its plan to engage and educate the community to assume those jobs of the future is, like the development itself, a work in progress. As other Chicago life sciences developers tout the future potential of the industry as a job creator, the training details for locals aren’t yet clear. 

A rendering of the forthcoming Bronzeville Innovation Center in Chicago

“First of all, these aren’t jobs, these are careers,” said Regina Stilp, principal at Farpoint Development, part of the Global Research Innovation Technology development team leading the Bronzeville project.

“We’re hoping through our efforts, including pretty extensive internships and apprenticeships, you will see career growth and a path. These are $100K jobs, 40% of which you can get with a GED,” she said.

As life sciences and biotech development continue to expand despite the economic downturn, politicians and local leaders in search of job growth see attracting the industry much like they see landing the latest battery factory, electric vehicle assembly line or tech headquarters: a sign they are investing in the careers of the future. 

It also means more incentives for attracting these plants, projects and developments, especially in nascent markets outside the big three of San Diego, San Francisco and Boston. While experts in corporate incentives and tax breaks, such as Pat Garofalo of the American Economic Liberties Project, haven't systematically looked at the total amount of city and state incentives going to the sector, promises of equitable, locally focused job growth and workforce investment have been key to city approvals for projects such as Bronzeville Lakefront and Philadelphia’s $6B Navy Yard redevelopment. 

Workforce development also represents a massive boost to real estate development and the expansion of local science ecosystems. A recent CBRE report about the expanding biotech job market found a 93% correlation between job growth and demand for lab space

But breaking down the promises and hype and challenges of linking new lab space and incubators with community job growth — especially getting local talent without college or advanced degrees into suitable training programs — is harder than it appears. 

For the most part, the industry has relied on university and community college partnerships to create certificate programs and specific training pathways to get local workers in the pipeline to fill jobs generated by industry growth, said Matt Gardner, head of CBRE's U.S. Advisory Life Sciences practice. 

Programs like InnovATEBIO, a national training program that has provided workers to more than 750 employers, have become a backbone of workforce development, providing young adults as well as mid-career workers a chance to train and work in lab support roles as manufacturing technicians and as supply chain and procurement professionals. 

With the demand for life sciences professionals expected to rise considerably in the near future — the CBRE report found total industry employment jumped 5.3% in January year-over-year, beating the U.S. average​​ — the experience of Gardner and others suggests linking incentives and approvals to job promises and community benefit agreements is reasonable. He said that government efforts to provide both training and affordable housing options will be key in site selection decisions going forward. 

“Industry leaders tend to think a little more holistically about what it means to have employees that can have longer tenure, that are rooted in their communities and that can afford to buy a home,” he said. 

Other industry leaders also said that not only can the workforce grow, but it can achieve more equitable results. Massachusetts Life Sciences Center President and CEO Kenneth Turner told WGBH that recent investments in job training offer “a chance for us to change the complexion of the life science workforce.” 

For Bronzeville Lakefront and ARC, which is expected to open in late 2023 as part of the project’s $600M first phase, there aren’t any specific goals or metrics for community and neighborhood hiring within the biotech space. 

The construction aspect of the development, however, will prioritize minority- and women-owned firms as well as local workers, looking to hire 40% locally, with a total of 45,000 direct and indirect construction jobs expected over the course of development. 

There are biotech partnerships in place with top-tier institutions like the University of Chicago and Sinai Hospital for scientific and research talent, but the efforts to train local workers via community colleges and start internship, career development and apprenticeship programs are still being sorted out. Malcolm X Community College and the Illinois Institute of Technology are two institutions that may be part of that process. 

Developers have prioritized a search for startups focused on community health and healthcare equity, with an eye toward hiring local talent and counselors, Chicago ARC Executive Director Kate Merton said. Chicago, she argued, offers a unique opportunity to bring together talent from different industries and create new healthcare startups and firms for the future. She didn’t have an exact number but estimated that ARC could bring in 10 companies a year, which would bring in roughly 10 jobs on average, including local hires.

“Some will come in and only hire five people, and some will hire 60 counselors,” she said. “Often when you bring in startups, they aren’t concerned with working with the communities where they are coming to land. They are interested in bringing in highly paid employees from the place they came from. We are making it very clear that when they come on board in Chicago, that can’t happen.” 

She acknowledged that the local training and educational programs are still works in progress, and she said she plans on finalizing more programs later this year.

“I mentioned we had interns coming in from Northwestern, but let’s be honest, we want interns coming in from the South and West sides,” she said.

Regions that have grown out their life sciences and biomanufacturing pipelines have found success in the types of programs Merton and ARC plan to form, but many have taken years to fully realize their potential. 

North Carolina Biotechnology Center CEO Doug Edgeton helped bolster the workforce in and near the Research Triangle that has been seen as a key to the success of the region’s biotech industry.

He said that the programs that work are long-term investments, collaborations between industry and economic development to find what local firms need and translating that into curriculum at nearby schools. The latest generation of training programs at local community colleges, BioNetwork and BioWork, has been in the works for more than 20 years. These training initiatives have also branched off into different tracks, from programs at top four-year colleges to a program in rural Pitt County that fast-tracks students with high math and science scores into pharmaceutical jobs. 

“When companies are selecting a site where they're going to build out, the very first question, probably the first 10 questions they ask us: ‘Where am I going to get my workforce?'” Edgeton said. “‘Who’s going to train them? How can I pull people in? Am I going to have to recruit people from out of state?’”

Gardner, who has focused on workforce training for nearly two decades before joining CBRE, said that there are lots of good examples of programs that have worked and helped train new workers. 

In San Mateo and Alameda counties in Northern California, for example, workforce organizations trained former United Airlines baggage handlers for biotech manufacturing technician programs. 

And even those with advanced degrees may not necessarily be ready to work on day one. The biotech industry has found that partnerships with local economic development groups and colleges with training programs that provide applied skills, such as regulatory details and “understanding how the drug pipeline works,” often fill in gaps not covered in typical degree programs. 

Expansion of the industry to growing hubs might make workforce investment a higher priority. Gardner said a capital gains holiday expiring in 2026 also potentially rewards any firms or developers seeking to benefit even more from community development. As biomanufacturing in particular evolves, he said, it will lead to smaller, more dispersed facilities and an opportunity to democratize the industry and locate new plants outside of big hubs. It just needs deliberate attention and strategy. 

“The talent gaps the industry has can’t be met just by waiting for more biology grants,” Gardner said. “That’s the challenge.”