Community colleges groom Arizona’s bioscience workforce

October 26, 2004

By hammersmith

In the fall of 2003, Arizona educators and government leaders were handed a daunting missive through the Arizona Bioscience Workforce Development assessment: to go forth and train lab techs.

The report, drawn up by the Columbus-based Battelle Memorial Institute and commissioned by a range of educational, nonprofit, and government institutions across the state, found that Arizona, while pursuing a promising industry in the biosciences, was not currently capable of generating the workforce needed to support that growing industry.

Standard estimates indicate that for each prime researcher, 5-12 supporting lab technicians are needed, but too few Arizona graduates emerge with the skill set needed to perform such technical work. The study advised correcting that shortfall as one step toward generating the workforce needed to grow and sustain the state’s budding biosciences industry.

So in the spirit of collaboration that has characterized so much of Arizona’s biosciences strategy, the state’s educators got on the horn to develop creative, programmatic ways to address this supply-demand gap. The goal: To ready a workforce capable of meeting the anticipated needs of what many hope will someday be a western hub for the biosciences, including training in lab protocols—until now, not one of Arizona’s strong suits.

Because many of the technical and vocation-specific skills lab technicians and clinical researchers need can be taught in the span of a two-year degree or certification program, community colleges around the state have taken on the lion’s share of work establishing a sustainable system to prepare these future workers.

Pima Community College is paving a wider path to the bioscience workforce in southern Arizona with newly-accredited courses and a biotechnology certificate program. DeVry University has added several bioscience courses and programs to its local arsenal, and Yavapai College, a partner in the study, is addressing steps to strengthen and expand its bioscience-related curricula. But the largest overall mobilization has been on the part of the Maricopa Community Colleges.

Maricopa Community Colleges: A 10-pronged approach

Because of its scope and geographical spread, the Maricopa Community College system, made up of 10 colleges attended by 276,000 students annually, has taken on the predominant role in training the future biosciences workforce in Arizona. Having already dedicated more than $1.5 million from Proposition 301 funds to meet the initial action steps of the workforce strategy, the Maricopa Community Colleges are hoping for the passage of Proposition 401 this November. That measure, a proposed bond of nearly $1 billion, would include more than $100 million funding for the colleges to build new lab and classroom complexes for their expanding science-related programs.

According to Steve Kiefer of the Maricopa Community College system’s Center for Workforce Development, the report offered few big surprises, but was really “a call to action” for the community colleges to fast-track and supplement their efforts to develop biosciences-related programs. Kiefer said that the study went beyond a traditional needs assessment by providing a strategy on how to proceed with goals and action steps.

“The report had actually held up development of a few programs,” said Kiefer. “Basically, no new funding was made available unless data from study supported the direction. So when the report was released, everyone was off to the races. Again, most already had planned on a direction based on national info. Now they had local evidence that documented the needs.”

In 2004 alone, $610,000 from Proposition 301 was allocated to fund four additional biosciences-related programs within the Maricopa Community Colleges: a bioscience career access for minorities program at South Mountain Community College; a lab skills development program at Scottsdale Community College; an advancing applied lab skills program at Phoenix College; and a biotech development program at Glendale Community College.

Already the signs that the tide is turning are beginning to show. At a recent meeting of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, Maricopa Community Colleges Chancellor Dr. Rufus Glasper reported that over 5,500 students were enrolled in health-care related programs in the spring semester of 2004.

“The Maricopa Colleges are the largest producers of healthcare workers in Arizona,” Glasper said.

According to Glasper, 62 percent of Arizona State University’s juniors and seniors have credits from Maricopa Community Colleges, indicating that the influence of community colleges goes beyond training laboratory technicians and extends to those students seeking advanced degrees. By doing so, the community colleges are addressing another problem identified by Battelle—that the number of students getting advanced degrees in biology and related fields was declining at a time when the demand for biosciences workers was increasing.

A bumper-crop of new bioscience programs

Pima Community College: Serving students in southern Arizona, Pima Community College just inaugurated its new biosciences program in mid-October, and was also accredited for a histology technician program. The Certificate in Biotechnology, which currently has 12 students and two faculty members, includes general biology courses, four semesters of chemistry, and a capstone internship at either Bio5, the University of Arizona’s multidisciplinary biosciences institute, or the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

“We’re trying to address the needs of an industry in its infancy,” said Ann Christensen, director of Pima’s biotech program. She stressed that building the biotech certificate was a very careful process, because beginning such a program when an industry is too small can be disastrous, as it generates graduates for jobs that don’t yet exist.

Christensen, who has used both the Battelle and her own needs assessments to look at the local biosciences employment market, says that Pima will focus on combinatorial chemistry and drug development, which may emerge as regional strengths with the probable construction of a drug development institute in Tucson. The goal of the institute, a three-way partnership between UA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and SRI Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., is to drastically cut the time it takes to get drugs from the lab to the market.

“We are waiting and watching,” Christensen said.

GateWay Community College: In February 2003, GateWay Community College began offering a certificate program to train clinical research coordinators, only the second community college in the United States to do so.

“The clinical research arena is growing exponentially as a result of the biotech advances in the state,” said Linda Mottle, director of GateWay’s Clinical Research Coordinator certification program.

According to the Arizona Republic, between 200 and 1,000 trials are conducted in the Phoenix Area on any given day. Students enrolled in GateWay’s new program will “learn how to enroll and screen patients, document results, and submit data to review boards.” The coursework aims to prepare people to take one of two nationally recognized certification exams.

Mottle said the certification program, which has 90 enrolled students and eight adjunct faculty members, recently added two specialty course offerings to meet the particular industry demand in Phoenix. Genetics and Clinical Research and Clinical Evaluation of Medical Devices both focus on areas identified as strong suits in Arizona’s bioindustry by Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. In addition, two of the core offerings in the 16-hour certificate program are now available as Internet courses. Mottle says she’s already enrolled distance learners in the program from as far away as Florida.

GateWay Community College will also be partnering with the TGen and ASU to construct the Downtown Phoenix Education Center, which will be located near TGen’s future headquarters at Fifth Street and Van Buren. The center will feature classrooms, conference areas, and computer and science labs.

Chandler-Gilbert Community College: The newest biosciences addition within the Maricopa Community Colleges system is the Introduction to Biotechnology course offered at Chandler-Gilbert Community College this fall, covering a wide range of biotechnology topics, from forensic DNA analysis to the ethics of genetic engineering. In the spring, CGCC will offer two more biotechnology-related classes: a one-credit seminar on applied biomedicine, and a course titled Applied Biosciences: Biotechnology, a four-credit lecture and lab exploring topics such as bioterrorism analysis.

If Proposition 401 passes, Chandler-Gilbert Community College says it will also build a new information technology complex and additional lab spaces, and will begin construction on a Healthcare Training Facility at the Williams site in partnership with Mesa Community College and GateWay Community College.

Summary of other workforce developments within the Maricopa Community Colleges

Here is a look at other new programs started throughout the Maricopa Community Colleges system since the Biosciences Workforce Strategy was commissioned, along with prospective developments in related areas, should Proposition 401 pass this November.

Glendale Community College
New programs: Biotechnology
Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: new instructional building for Life Sciences, Biotechnology; new nursing and psychology classrooms and labs

Mesa Community College
New programs: Biotechnology
Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: new science and math cluster; joint Healthcare Training Facility with CGCC and GateWay

Paradise Valley Community College
Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: new life science lab building; computer labs

Phoenix College
New programs: histology technician (specialist in using microscopic methods for studying tissue); Laboratory assisting Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: renovation of sciences building

Scottsdale Community College
New programs: biotechnology
Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: new science buildings

South Mountain Community College
New programs: biotechnology
Biosciences plans with Proposition 401: new science buildings

Important partnerships

In service of the workforce strategy, the Maricopa Community Colleges strengthened some standing relationships with Valley health care institutions and invested in new ones. The consortium of colleges in the county has ties to Southwest Health, Arizona Heart Hospital, Vanguard, Banner Health, and Mayo Clinic Scottsdale, among others.

“They need employees and we need access to their talent and technologies to produce those healthcare workers,” said Glasper.

But the partnership that is perhaps most unique for the community colleges is their new affiliation with TGen, which was founded in the Valley two years ago. The community colleges agreed to contribute $1 million over a ten-year period to help establish TGen with the understanding that shared teaching resources, faculty relationships, student internships, and guest lectureships would be developed.

“It is almost unheard of for a community college to form an affiliation with a research organization like TGen. That partnership represents access to expertise, facilities and experiences that we couldn’t afford on our own,” Glasper said.

Looking ahead

As Arizona’s educators and industry leaders look ahead to further developments of the biosciences workforce, Kiefer says that one of the biggest challenges facing the colleges is remaining focused on their piece of the biosciences puzzle.

Maricopa Community Colleges are increasingly involved in the K-12 pipeline development efforts. There are departments at the district and at each of the colleges that focus on high school relations, teacher training, dual-enrollment programs, and recruiting efforts that promote access for minority and other underrepresented students.

“Up until the point of the Battelle Roadmap study, organizations in Arizona didn’t collaborate very well,” Kiefer said. “Having a clear statement of ‘here’s what you need’ and ‘here’s what you must do to produce it’ helped carry us forward into collaborative partnerships with industry, education, and other statewide interests. This spirit of cooperation really drives the work of the Commission.”

Chancellor Glasper agrees. “The Commission represents an unprecedented level of collaboration statewide,” he said.

The challenge?

“We’ve got the right people at the table, and now we need to keep them engaged,” Kiefer said.

For more information:

Arizona Bioscience Workforce Strategy

GateWay Community College Clinical Research Coordinator Program

Arizona Biology Network, Pima Community College

DeVry University Phoenix