By Joyce Edelstein
How many college students witness biotech startups in action, or sit in on discussions with industry leaders, or take classes where they learn the exact skills industry needs? That's a typical day for students studying life sciences at Palm Beach State College. Education doesn't get any better or more relevant than when your college is a Banner Center.
In December 2010, Palm Beach State was selected by Workforce Florida, Inc. to be the Employ Florida Banner Center for Life Sciences. This isn't just a lofty title or trophy that sits on a shelf. Being chosen to establish and operate an Employ Florida Banner Center carries a contractual obligation to serve as the statewide provider of workforce education and resources for a particular industry. Currently there are 11 Banner Centers around the state targeting industries ranging from manufacturing to the creative arts to energy. The Banner Center for Life Sciences is the newest and isn't wasting any time.
Input from Tallahassee to the Keys
The College's Banner Center is dedicated to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device sectors of the life sciences industry - sectors that are making Florida famous with such distinguished residents as The Scripps Research Institute, Max Planck Florida Institute, Biotest Pharmaceuticals, BioTools, Cytonics, Akron Biotech, and the list goes on. Working with industry partners from Tallahassee to the Keys, the Banner Center is responsible for annual hardcore deliverables in the form of definitive, cutting-edge training modules that meet the precise needs of Florida's life sciences industry. "It's a curriculum designed from industry input," says Libby Handel, Ph.D., director of the Banner Center. "These modules focus on real-world situations and applications with emphasis on industry standards and competencies required in the life sciences workplace."
Working with industry came naturally to Dr. Handel, who is also the director of the College's innovative Biotechnology program. Her involvement of industry in the program was instrumental in Palm Beach State's selection as a Banner Center, but Handel didn't rely only on her Rolodex. She and her team used every avenue available to ensure their Banner Center's Industry Advisory Council included all possible players: new and established companies, economic development organizations, workforce boards and other colleges and universities. The goal: Gather comprehensive input on training needs - the training most essential to the continued growth of Florida's life sciences industry. While the industry has weakened in other states, Florida has seen a 21 percent jump in the number of biotech companies since 2008, according to the University of Florida.
Partners in Training
In focus group meetings, one-on-one sessions and online surveys, Florida life science leaders gave detailed responses to questions like "What are the five most important areas of knowledge you look for in employees? Does the current workforce possess this knowledge? Please describe." Such questions allowed the Banner Center team to drill down and pinpoint the exact curriculum that would be valuable to the industry now and in the future. "When companies are together asking 'who would you hire, why would you hire them, and what educational background do you need?' then it's very beneficial for everyone," says Rina Dukor, Ph.D., BioTools president and the Banner Center's lead industry advisor for the pharmaceutical sector. "That's the integral and beautiful part of how the curriculum for the Banner Center was created. They actually listened and understood what the companies here need."
Training Everywhere for Everybody
Armed with this data, the Banner Center quickly determined the topics of its first six training modules. The curriculum develop-ment team for each module consists of academicians, researchers and industry professionals, who make sure the modules are completely Florida-driven, right down to the case studies and lab materials used.
After undergoing beta-testing and revision, the modules will be offered statewide to entry-level and advanced workers, as well as career-changers and students enrolled in biotechnology programs. These courses will be given in venues ranging from corporate offices to the classrooms and laboratories of Palm Beach State College and the Banner Center's growing roster of academic partners, fulfilling the Banner Center's dual mission of training Florida's life science workforce and helping the state's biotechnology programs revitalize their curriculums. Course completers will receive a Banner Center industry-recognized certificate to tout on resumes and interviews.
"From the campus to the workplace, we've addressed and designed the curriculum to be helpful to a variety of demographics," says Handel. "Even our Business Basics for the Life Sciences Industry course is appealing to scientists who want to transition out of the laboratory into business or regulatory roles." The ultimate challenge will then be to identify and develop industry certifications. As biotechnology and its career tracks are so new, no universally recognized certifications exist. The Banner Center, through intensive collaboration with industry and education partners, will build and standardize a cohesive statewide certification system for life science professionals, which if successful, could be rolled out nationally.
With the College in the biotech spotlight, known as the resource for life sciences throughout the state, Palm Beach State biotech-nology students are sitting pretty. Some have bachelor's and even master's degrees from other schools, but come here to get a one-year college credit certificate or two-year Associate in Science degree, taking advantage of the expert lab-based instruction and outstanding internships. With the addition of Banner Center networking events, the exposure to what industry needs, and the opportunity to train alongside those working in the industry - Palm Beach State has become the place to launch a life sciences career.
"I can't imagine myself doing anything else," says Asha Patel, a 2011 A.S. degree graduate of the College's Biotechnology program. Patel, who loved the program "from day one," just finished an internship at ImmunoSite Technologies in Ft. Lauderdale and is now getting her bachelor's degree. "We were able to meet people in the field, people who created their own companies, people looking for actual techs right out of school... It was a great experience."
Tod Fairbanks, Ph.D., chair of the Banner Center's Industry Advisory Council and life sciences professor at Palm Beach State, sees everyone's hard work and commitment paying off. "When we ask [our industry partners] if they can handle our students for internships, they're more than willing because they know they've had input into what we're teaching. It makes it easier for them to transition our students right into their own labs. It's a win-win."
The employees of industry partners are benefiting, too. By taking the Business Basics module, Dr. Dukor's BioTools staff - everyone from administrative assistants to Ph.D. scientists - achieved a better understand-ing of the industry and a fresh perspective on their own products, resulting in process improvements and new marketing strategies. "Everyone has their niche, but this module brought us together and provided the framework to get everyone's input. We would not have uncovered these ideas if it hadn't been for this course," commented Dukor.
Earlier this year, Florida was ranked #1 in the nation for workforce and job training by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. At Palm Beach State, the Banner Center for Life Sciences is a prime example of how the best in workforce training makes a difference.
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