Pharma Jobs Are (Still) Going to Carolina

April 17, 2012
BioNetwork’s Doug Drabble says there are jobs throughout the state, though workers won't always relocate to take them.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

Like in many areas of the U.S., the Life Sciences job market in North Carolina is looking up. There has been a notable increase in new people joining the workforce in the state, says Doug Drabble, director of North Carolina’s BioNetwork, which works with community colleges and Life Sciences manufacturers to train workers. “If someone is willing to relocate somewhere else in the state, we can usually put them in touch with five or six companies that are hiring.”

The openings are coming as manufacturers and other life sciences companies are expanding and newly locating to the area. In addition, says Drabble, workers—middle managers, supervisors, floor operators, and maintenance professionals—are retiring. “You are seeing an attrition out of those groups,” he says. A good amount of what Drabble calls backfilling is taking place—employees at higher positions retiring, resulting in a cascade of internal promotions, leaving mostly entry-level positions open.

One of the reasons why North Carolina might see this phenomenon more than most regions is that it has programs such as the BioNetwork that help companies train incumbent workers inexpensively or even for free, supporting internal hiring.

But believe it or not, getting workers to relocate is not as easy as one would think. “We currently have 100 jobs available in one county, but difficulty drawing people from other counties,” Drabble says. “One of my biggest frustrations is the lack of mobility of individuals.”

Skill Shift?

Another phenomenon Drabble sees is that when retirements occur, companies are often eliminating those positions while potentially opening up new ones. “Often, they’ll say to us, ‘Do you have someone you can send us in this other area?’”

There’s a definite skills shift taking place, says Drabble, who’s been involved in the Life Sciences in various capacities for more than three decades. “Ten to fifteen years ago, it was expected that supervisors would be the people that would know all,” especially from a regulatory perspective, he says. “Now, companies are providing opportunities to operations-level staff that traditionally have only been offered to supervisory staff.”

BioNetwork has sought to help companies provide training for a broader segment of workers. The end result, he says, is that “all employees have first-hand knowledge [of important rules and regulations], and know how to ask the right questions.”

Drabble is also seeing companies investing in people with potential, rather than always seeking the “perfect fit” for a given position. Rather, “they want a fundamental fit,” he says.

As an example, the new Merck vaccine facility opening this year in Durham will require some 800 new hires. “They’re looking for fundamental skill sets and then training these people internally,” Drabble says. “They’re not expecting individuals to have, for example, aseptic [processing] training, but they’re providing it the day the workers start.”

The smaller the company is, the more stringent and inflexible they tend to be, he adds. “You have to be our expert in this area,” they might tell an applicant. It is incumbent upon these manufacturers to keep an open mind, says Drabble.

Easier said than done. Many young professionals lack fundamentals that companies now feel are “must haves” rather than “nice to haves.” Foremost among them are simple people skills, Drabble says. “It’s more of a social skill gap than an industrial skill gap.”

Drabble implores students and young professionals to brush up on their people skills. He also recommends they look for work in other industries in order to gain experience. “They should identify analogous industries that they could work in that provides the opportunity to do a lateral transfer from one industry to another—for example, from a job in chemicals or cosmetics to one in vaccines or plasma.”

Model of Success

Despite challenges, the North Carolina model is working. Is it transferable to other regions? Yes, says Drabble. But the strength of the Carolina model “is in the collaboration between the community colleges, universities, and government organizations.” This has taken time to develop, he says. Five years ago, for example, it was difficult to get different colleges to work together. Now, they’re used to it and readily work together and join into joint projects.

What might be most remarkable is the speed with which critical training can be developed. Course curricula can be developed or altered in a matter of weeks, Drabble says. Recently, a packaging firm decided it was important for all of its employees to have GMP training. BioNetwork facilitated a program by which the 360 workers across three shifts were trained and certified within three weeks of when the initial request was made.

“If you can’t respond to people quickly, there’s no point in responding,” says Drabble.