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$4.7 million city funding to support biotech workforce development

Community colleges at crux of life science training push

Avery Bleichfeld

Community colleges and two-year institutions are at the center of a city effort to bring more Boston residents, especially those from Black and brown communities, into careers in the booming life sciences industry.

Those programs are uniquely positioned to meet communities of color where they’re at and support their transition into the growing industry, said Laura Rubin, dean of science, technology, engineering and math at Bunker Hill Community College.

“These are the institutions where the demographic traditionally underrepresented in the life sciences tend to go to school,” Rubin said.

At a press conference Feb. 15, Mayor Michelle Wu announced $4.7 million in city funding for life sciences workforce development. The city awarded the funds, pulled from federal COVID-era American Rescue Plan Act money, the city’s Neighborhood Jobs Trust and its 2024 operating budget, to seven recipients, four of which are higher education institutions with a focus on associate degree programs.

The focus on non-four-year institutions comes as advocates and programs are pushing for biotechnology companies to reexamine the degree requirements they attach to their jobs.

A 2022 workforce report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council found that about 60% of employers in the biotechnology industry require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions and about 70% prefer it. Nearly half said they were “not at all likely” to hire an applicant with less than a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level role.

“To have the possibility of entry at these different levels is critical for people to get in and decide whether they like it and it’s the right environment for them,” Rubin said.

Heather Duffy, chair of biotechnology at Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, said that much of the time spent in a four-year degree program, like general education requirements, isn’t necessary to start a life sciences career.

“If you focus the training so that the other extraneous stuff is not in it,” said Duffy, “you can train an actual scientist in two years.”

Much of the city funding announced last week will continue to support efforts already in the works. The nearly $500,000 in funding directed to Quincy College, in partnership with the Bioprocessing Group, will support a four-week workforce development program that previously ran as a pilot in the fall of 2022 and the spring of 2023.

Franklin Cummings Tech, which is slated to move its headquarters to Nubian Square in the coming years, is receiving $350,000 from the city to support a new, previously announced biotechnology associates degree program.

Duffy, who is leading the associate degree program, said the city grant will make a reality some aspects of the program that were previously just a goal, like two paid internships for every student and a success coach specialized in science and technology.

Roxbury Community College, which is receiving funds in partnership with the emerging Nubian Square Life Science Training Center, will put the city money toward programs connecting high school students with life science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training.

Hillel Sims, RCC’s dean of STEM, said the money will likely go toward the college’s summer STEM program, which started in 2015 and first ran last summer with the support of the Nubian Square Life Science Training Center, part of the upcoming Nubian Ascends development. The program connects Boston area high schoolers with STEM training in a variety of fields, with access to tools high schools might not have access to.

The funding might also support other efforts that bring together high school and adult learners, but Sims said that wasn’t set in stone as RCC hasn’t received any official award numbers or grant budgets yet.

At Bunker Hill Community College, the funding will support a new program that builds on an existing partnership with Mass General Brigham. Rubin said the school already sees high interest in health care roles like nursing and radiation technicians but would like to see the program develop new engagement in lab-based roles for students.

“This is a booming industry in Boston,” she said, “Really, we are the hub for the world, and we want our students to really be able to take advantage of that.”

The grant recipients said that the different programs will operate in collaboration, not competition. Each fills a different niche in the life sciences space. For example, the Franklin Cummings Tech degree program will focus on research and development and manufacturing, while the Bunker Hill Community College program is targeted at medical lab sciences — life sciences work in hospitals — and Bioversity, the workforce development nonprofit launched by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council last month, has a lab operations bent.

For Rubin, from Bunker Hill, there’s enough of a need for jobs in the industry that the different institutions and programs can encourage teamwork.

“I think because there’s enough of a job poll on this, we can be partners,” she said. “It’s not just about grabbing the enrollment for ourselves.”

Sims, from RCC, said that by each developing its own focus, the different programs can share opportunities and academic resources.

“We should not be reinventing the wheel each time but capitalizing on what each other has,” Sims said.

Duffy said she sees the different programs as part of a continuum, allowing on- and off-ramps from the training so students can balance life science education with working jobs needed to support themselves and their families.

For example, Franklin Cummings Tech has plans to partner with Bioversity to help those students transition into the associate degree program and then, potentially, continue onto a four-year degree through a pending articulation agreement with Northeastern University.

Duffy said that increased access will be important to increasing access to life science training.

“A lot of our constituents need to work. They need to support their families. They don’t have the money for a four-year college, and this gives them the opportunity,” Duffy said. “I think what the city recognized is that for the population of Boston, this allows the inclusion of people who just can’t afford that four-year experience.”