How Community and Technical Colleges Are Building the Bioeconomy Workforce

More federal investment in emerging technology job training at community colleges is needed to fully unlock pathways to good jobs in the bioeconomy.
Blog Post
Forsyth Technical Community College
July 10, 2024

This article was produced as part of New America’s Future of Work and the Innovation Economy Initiative. Share this article and your thoughts with us on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our Future of Work Bulletin newsletter to stay current on our latest research, events, and writing.

The Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina is a leader in regenerative medicine—a cutting-edge field that develops new technologies to heal tissues and organs damaged by injury or disease. With its robust program to train students for highly skilled technician roles in the industry, Forsyth Technical Community College sits at the heart of the region’s economic and workforce development ecosystem. When First Lady Jill Biden traveled to Forsyth Tech in January to announce the winners of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engine awards, she signaled the critical role that community colleges play in advancing the innovation economy overall—and the biotechnology and biomanufacturing sectors in particular.

Today, leaders in the growing “bioeconomy” are harnessing the power of biology to produce almost anything used in daily life—from medicines to plastics to (maybe one day) airplane parts. This innovation is spurring investment nationwide. Four of the recently announced Tech Hubs awardees—Heartland BioWorks in Central Indiana, iFAB Tech Hub in Illinois, ReGen Valley Tech Hub in New Hampshire, and the Wisconsin BioHealth Hub—are focusing on biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The total value of the U.S. bioeconomy is estimated at nearly $1 trillion. Private companies have announced $29 billion in biomanufacturing investments since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration.

These investments are creating good jobs requiring a range of skills and postsecondary credentials. Many of the jobs being created don’t require a four-year degree, and preparing a skilled and diverse workforce for these jobs is an increasingly urgent task. A year ago, to help meet this need, the U.S. government released the first-ever national action plan on expanding education and training for biotechnology and biomanufacturing. What the plan highlighted is that community colleges like Forsyth Tech are modeling the best practices for building a strong bioeconomy workforce.

Community colleges are building programs in partnership with employers, universities, and other organizations to ensure students graduate with the skills needed for good jobs resulting from federal investments. For example, over 30 percent of the workforce at one company were trained at Forsyth Tech. Twenty-two community colleges are partners across the 10 Regional Innovation Engines.

The NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan recently reflected on his visit to Forsyth Tech and the importance of community colleges in training the skilled technical workforce during a public event hosted by New America. "I can tell you categorically that none of the Regional Innovation Engines will be successful if we don't have the capacity of the skilled technical workforce unleashed at full force and full scale, everywhere," he said.

At Montgomery College in Maryland, a registered apprenticeship program allows apprentices to earn an associate degree while getting paid hands-on training at the pharmaceutical company GSK. Students with a four-year degree in scientific fields have highlighted how community college biotechnology programs like those offered by Shoreline Community College in Washington can enhance their skills by providing tailored training relevant to industry.

A key challenge in building the biotechnology and biomanufacturing workforce is awareness. Many of the jobs are new and frequently unfamiliar to students and their caregivers. Through dual enrollment programs, community colleges like Forsyth Tech, Montgomery College, and Madison College in Wisconsin are providing high school students with early exposure to the field and accelerating their pathway to a credential or degree—saving them time and money. Most students at Austin Community College’s biotechnology program begin in high school.

Furthermore, leading community colleges are working to ensure that the education they provide offers pathways to more advanced degrees. A partnership with the Wake Forest School of Medicine allows Forsyth Tech students to gain research laboratory experience, expanding awareness of career paths available through graduate education. MiraCosta College in San Diego has developed the first community college bachelor’s degree program in biotechnology to meet the workforce needs of biotechnology companies like Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, and Thermo Fisher Scientific (24 states permit community colleges to offer applied bachelor’s degrees).

While many community colleges are stepping up to meet the workforce needs of the bioeconomy, significant challenges remain. Many community colleges are struggling to recruit and retain faculty in fields like biotechnology, where instructors can earn far more money in the private sector—highlighting an opportunity to improve faculty working conditions and support creative partnerships to address this challenge.

Federal agencies have prioritized biotechnology and biomanufacturing in key grant programs, aligned to the national action plan. In January, the White House announced a range of new workforce commitments in advanced manufacturing, including biomanufacturing.

However, funding for many science programs, including those supporting community college pathways, was cut in FY 2024 appropriations. And the outlook for FY 2025 isn’t much better, with the House appropriations bill boosting NSF funding by only 2 percent.

Growth and innovation in the bioeconomy will fall short without a workforce ready to fill the good jobs created, and community colleges are central to building those pathways. Expanding strong community college programs requires intentional effort and robust investment. It needs to be a priority for public and private sector leaders at the national, state, and local level.