Beyond Sprawl: Trying To Swap Nails For Test Tubes
December 02, 2011

Biotech Jobs Filling the Construction Gap?

The construction industry has shed some 700,000 jobs in the southwest border region since the market collapsed three years ago. And the industry may never quite boom again. That means cities are on the hunt for the next big employment opportunity. And many here are putting their hopes on biotechnology. But could biotech really put back to work all those welders and real estate agents? From the Fronteras Desk, Jill Replogle seeks the answer to that question.

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On a recent afternoon at the International Genomics Consortium in downtown Phoenix, lab workers were unpacking samples sent from cancer centers across the country. Some of the ice-packed, plastic bags of tissue samples were marked "NL" for "normal;" others were marked with a "T" for "tumor."

In another part of the lab, workers will extract DNA and RNA from the tissues so that scientists can map out the genomes of cancer cells.

Earlier that day, dozens of city officials from all over the United States visited the non-profit research company on a tour of the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. The campus has been under development by the City of Phoenix since 2004.

Along with the International Genomics Consortium, it now houses several other research firms, plus a medical school and pharmacy school. There are more buildings under construction, and the city is actively recruiting new tenants.

“Arizona really needed to change its economy," Rick Naimark, deputy city manager of the City of Phoenix, told the tour group. "Our economy had been so focused on the boom and bust of construction and growth. We wanted to diversify to higher paying jobs and jobs that would last and continue to grow and build.”

Biotech is one of the few industries to have survived the economic downturn relatively well. During the first year of the recession, while other private sectors were shedding employees daily, the industry actually added jobs. That's why some cities in the Southwest are putting their hopes on biotechnology as the next big job creator.

The industry's secret to success is strong demand, said Stanley Maloy, dean of the College of Sciences at San Diego State University.

“There are so many questions out there to be asked,” Maloy said. “And almost every one of those questions has an opportunity in biotechnology.”

Photo by Jill Replogle
A lab worker at the International Genomics Consortium prepares a tissue sample. The IGC is a non-profit research firm housed at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

Questions such as: What's the cure for cancer? How will the nation meet the rising health care needs of baby boomers? What's the magic biofuel that's cheap and sustainable enough to replace shrinking oil reserves?

“We have opportunities for innovation, for developing new processes, for developing new companies that will go on for a good hundred years,” Maloy said.

Several hundred students graduate from Maloy’s college each year, and many find jobs with private biotech companies in the surrounding area. San Diego is one of the country’s major biotech hubs, and a model for cities like Phoenix, that want to be a hub.

But building an industry that can absorb job losses from a mega-employer like housing is a tall order.

“You need a critical mass of talented people,” said Erik Gordon, an economist at the University of Michigan and an expert on the biotech business.

“Everything from people with a couple of PhDs who are doing the leading-edge science, through to the lab technicians who actually run the experiments for you,” Gordon said.

San Diego has that, plus venture capitalists to keep the money flowing, the economist said. But even here, industry experts say companies often struggle to find enough trained workers for key jobs. Local schools and industry-designed training programs are trying to fill that gap by recruiting workers like Robert Ferguson.

Photo by Jill Replogle
Robert Ferguson, 51, is a former construction worker who now works for a biotechnology firm in San Diego. A federal stimulus grant paid for his retraining.

Ferguson, 51, has worked in construction most of his life. But in late 2009, he traded in his overalls for a lab coat. With help from a federal stimulus grant, he enrolled in an accelerated biotechnology training program at San Diego Miramar College.

"Talk about a mid-life crisis," Ferguson said. "But I said, 'I have nothing to lose.' So I put my nose to the grindstone and, you know, it was very hard."

So far, Ferguson said, it’s been totally worth it. He now has a job with a company called Advanced Biohealing that manufactures a product for diabetics.

"I did a lot of hard work to get where I am," Ferguson said. "I couldn't be happier."

Federal stimulus grants and other government-funded programs that helped train thousands of workers like Ferguson for biotech jobs are drying up. Given that reality, some question if biotech can really be the economy's next superhero. Maybe for San Diego, said Gordon, the economist.

“If you look at it as: 'Where’s our best shot?' It’s probably biotech," Gordon said. "But I wouldn’t expect it to absorb everybody.”

If the city can keep its biotech industry booming — and other cities can grow their biotech sector — it’s not just those workers who will benefit.

"As biotech companies grow, they need all the things that other companies need," the economist said. "What you really hope for is that the second and third order effects, the indirect effects of growing companies means everybody does well, from the local office supply person to the local janitorial services person."

Maybe even construction workers.