By Sam Bonacci
In the last two years, successful workforce development programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Mount Wachusett Community College have been built around one thing: real-world conditions and equipment that create skills that can be directly applied to the workplace.
WPI’s Biomanufacturing Education & Training Center (BETC) got its start with a fundamentals program in 2007 that has prepared 800 people for biomanufacturing work. The program allowed people looking to launch careers in that hot field to take a class in the basics of the industry. That program is still in place, but represents only a small portion of the training held there today. Since the completion of lab space at the Prescott Street facility in 2013, a new emphasis has been placed on continuing education for those already in the field.
”This (facility) takes into account all aspects of biomanufacturing … it is all covered under one roof,” said Kamal Rashid, director of the BETC, who explained that the equipment creates an “industrial experience,” reflecting exactly what’s being used at manufacturers around the country.
In a field with tight federal controls, continuous training is not an option but a necessity, Rashid said. The center offers training that companies can’t do with their own equipment — due to such issues as contamination concerns — or that need to be taught to larger groups. These group trainings not only accelerate individual advancement, but create more talent and expertise for a company, helping a company be more productive, Rashid says. Cross-training employees so they’re familiar with multiple aspects of the process can help accelerate a company’s growth.
”Getting from the door to the floor can be faster if they go through a training at our facility, but it is also for people who have been in the industry … (companies) want them to get acquainted with the recent developments,” Rashid said. “Training is not an end result … training is an ongoing thing.”
The proof of the concept for WPI lies in its corporate partners who send their people to learn. The program has a nearly two-year partnership with Biogen, and more than 26 companies, from as far away as Illinois, have sent their employees to Worcester for training, Rashid said.
Meanwhile, Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) offers programs to help the advanced manufacturing industry, whose businesses have reported having a hard time finding qualified employees. MWCC recently shared a $15.9 million U.S. Department of Labor grant with four other colleges, and has been undertaking the Advanced Manufacturing Industry Readiness Training program, shared with three other institutions.
“We are providing the skilled workforce and changing the perception so that people who might not think of it as a career can understand the benefits,” said Jacqueline Belrose, MWCC’s vice president of lifelong learning and workforce development, who oversees the grant.
While the WPI program ranges from a day to a week for the continuing education classes, MWCC’s runs six weeks. The college’s programs are designed to prepare people for manufacturing careers, allowing people to get training, then return for more training to help them advance. Key to this program is an understanding of the equipment, which is why it’s important to be using the same equipment the students will use after graduation, Belrose said.
The program has been growing as word spreads, Belrose said, with 106 graduates since 2013. It also helps that it’s free because of the grant. The program has also proved popular with employers. At the recent graduation ceremony, recruiters from local companies were on site doing interviews.
Eric Longo, the vice president of manufacturing at Bemis Associates, an international firm with operations in Shirley, sits on the advisory board for the MWCC’s program, which allows Bemis to help develop the curriculum.
“We have an aging workforce in New England as it relates to manufacturing skills and we have to re-invigorate the next generations of employees to be aware of the opportunities in manufacturing but also have the skill set to meet the needs of the employers,” he said.
Injectronics of Clinton has partnered with MWCC to find new employees. Human resources manager Karen Hartwell said there has been increasing competition for qualified employees, particularly in medical device manufacturing. “For the first time in years, turnover is increasing at the production level due to recruitment from other companies,” she said. “This has typically occurred in technical or engineering levels, but now has impacted the production levels as well increasing the challenge to attract and retain experienced staff.”
Like MWCC, WPI sees widening demand for its offerings.
”There are about 1,600 biotech companies in the United States and we want all of them to know about us,” Rashid said. “Our aim is first to respond to the needs of Massachusetts, then nationwide, and our president looks to the globalization of WPI, so we will go global.”