Public Affairs

Now hear this: Veterans, others sought for key biotech fields

Across this BRIDGE, San Diego State, partners provide paths for unemployed to land positions

November 19, 2010
By Sean Kearns

A researcher in the SDSU Bioscience Center prepares a sample.In a region where a growing biotechnology industry faces challenges finding qualified workers while about 160,000 individuals are unemployed and displaced (including about 20,000 veterans), the BRIDGE program at San Diego State University has clear marching orders in the form of a nearly $5 million Department of Labor grant: Provide more than 1,000 unemployed and displaced workers – including veterans – with the skills and training to gain employment in the biotechnology industry.

Operating from long-established strongholds and through bold new strategic campaigns, BRIDGE is an allied effort that includes the trade group BIOCOM, Miramar Community College and the San Diego Workforce Partnership. Together they engage in coordinated training and bring high-technology to bear to advance the key objective along several fronts. Its full name has the forceful air of military phrasing: Biotechnology Readiness, Immersion, Certification and Degrees for Gainful Employment (BRIDGE). No wonder it aligns so well with veterans and military personnel. 

“BRIDGE is actually a bridge between many programs,” said Stanley Maloy, dean of SDSU’s College of Science. A geneticist and past president of the American Society for Microbiology, Maloy is BRIDGE’S academic director.

“This puts them all together in a way that keeps the pathway alive and sustainable,” he said. “It brings together public, private, education, government and military interests in a consortium to meet a regional need in biotechnology. It combines service providers with opportunities for students in brand new ways.”

Maloy credits Joan Bissell of the CSU’s Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative with leading the initial engagement to bring veterans into the mix.

“We met numerous times with people in the military,” he said. “We learned there’s a great need to serve people at very different levels. For example, after a few years in the Marine Corps, personnel get a strong push to extend their education. It’s not uncommon for active-duty Marines to earn their bachelor’s degree or even a master’s.”

From years working closely with the biotechnology industry, BRIDGE builders knew that workforce needs ranged from entry-level to leadership, from research to regulatory affairs.

Thus the program’s structure resembles a custom-built, five-level interchange, an integrated matrix of conduits from which participants will emerge and land positions in biotechnology. “They come in at a variety of different levels and they go out at different levels,” said Maloy.

Some participants enter the program lacking a high school diploma. Some come with college credits. Some have bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Some may have a Ph.D but lack the specialized scientific training to meet current workforce needs. Their outcomes will vary depending upon the pathway they take.

Here are the five distinct, yet related, levels BRIDGE offers:

  • For high school students who have not yet graduated, the Life Science Summer Institute provides a week of training followed by a six- to eight-week internship which may lead to a job after high school or pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
  • For undergraduates, training is provided for individuals seeking to be certified as medical laboratory technicians. Students earn the equivalent of an associate’s degree with additional coursework and gain skills to suit jobs in a high-demand field.
  • For those entering with bachelor’s degrees, certificate and degree training is offered in clinical laboratory sciences, a field where the need for trained scientists is increasingly outpacing the number of qualified candidates.
  • Through existing Professional Science Master’s (PSM) programs, individuals can earn degrees and certificates preparing them for key fields, such as regulatory affairs, quality assurance, computational sciences, medical physics, and bioinformatics.
  • For displaced employees and others from education, research and other technical areas, the Life Science Immersion Transition to Industry Program offers online training to develop skills and background to prepare them for key advanced positions in today’s industry.

The first four levels are in operation.  The fifth is expected to launch in spring 2011. (For details on finding a pathway to fit particular background and goals, see http://www.ces.sdsu.edu/bridge.)

The BRIDGE programs are being designed to be sustainable, to continue to connect the needs of unemployed and the biotechnology industry long after the end of the 30-month Department of Labor grant.

The grant will support training activities at San Diego State, Miramar Community College, the BIOCOM Institute, the San Diego Workforce Partnership and various clinical and industry labs. Other partners include the BIOcollaborative and California Department of Veteran Affairs.  The potential for including CSU San Marcus is being explored.

SDSU hopes to identify military training courses that translate to core engineering course credit.While not exclusively for unemployed veterans, BRIDGE places a “special priority” on them, coordinating with “transition assistance programs” for those about to leave active duty, veterans agencies and related organizations to recruit participants.

Along with the BRIDGE program and the specialized Professional Science Master’s program, San Diego State fosters veterans’ advancement in engineering through the National Science Foundation’s “Troops to Engineers” program and related projects involving internships and advanced math courses.

For Marines heading into new careers, Major General Mike Lehnert, then commanding general of the Marine Corps Installation West, offered this blanket professional reference (at a 2006 news conference with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed):  “By the time they get out after a four-year tour, they're four years away from the classroom. Their calculus skills are maybe a little bit rusty. But they're smart, they're tough, they're mature, they are exactly the kind of citizens that we want for this great state…. What we have to do is capture those folks as they leave the military, and get them here to the state of California where they'll be reinvested. The qualities that they have will bring this state forward.”

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