Local officials want to help Tucson bioscience companies fill jobs locally.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in a sector where jobs range from Ph.D. scientists to workers who gather beneficial insects for pest control.
That was one of the main takeaway messages from a panel discussion on bioscience jobs at a meeting of the Pima County Workforce Investment Board on Friday.
Aric Meares, president and CEO of Azbil BioVigilant, said his company needs a broad array of talent to develop and market its instruments, which use optical and biological technology to instantaneously detect microbes in the air.
Azbil BioVigilant’s local staff of about 20 people includes microbiologists, various kinds of engineers, software programmers and regulatory staff, in addition to the sales and administration positions common to any company.
To succeed, BioVigilant staffers have to learn about disciplines foreign to them — for example, a software engineer has to figure out how to turn data into an information display that is useful to a microbiologist, Meares said.
“We have a lot of cross-pollination on my team,” he said. “A variety of disciplines get pulled together, not just one.”
The varied workforce needs of bioscience firms are striking at Arbico Organics, an Oro Valley provider of natural pest-control and organic growing products that among other things breeds and collects beneficial bugs.
Arbico’s staff includes entomologists — scientists that specialize in insects — for breeding programs as well as “harvesters” — people who collect insects in the wild for minimum wage, said MarciBeth Phillips, a biocontrol specialist and educational liaison for Arbico.
The workforce needs of some companies — particularly high-tech startups — change as the companies evolve.
Accelerate Diagnostics, which moved to Tucson last year from Denver, has hired about 45 mostly scientific staffers as the company perfects its technology for rapidly identifying pathogens, Steve Reichling, the company’s chief financial officer, told the board.
The company has found some of its professionals locally — including engineers from diagnostic instrument maker Ventana Medical Systems/Roche and scientists from the Bio5 Institute, the University of Arizona’s cross-disciplinary genetic research institute, Reichling said.
“The investments there have produced very good results,” he said.
As the company moves into production — perhaps as soon as next year — it will need assembly technicians, he said, noting that associate-degree-level grads could fill some of those roles.
While discrete jobs usually require discrete skills, educators should look for opportunities to provide cross-disciplinary curricula, BioVigilant’s Meares said.
The longtime optics-industry executive said combining optics and biology in some way in school could help stem the loss of local optics jobs “and keep these grads from going to California.”
Uwe Hilgert, director of education outreach and training at Bio5, said the huge data demand of genetic research has created a need for people specializing in bioinformatics, or the processing of biological data.
“We have people who are so specialized that my biggest challenge is bringing the two fields together, biology and computer science,” said Hilgert, a Ph.D. molecular microbiologist.
The need for cross-training workers for bio jobs struck a chord with workforce board member Johnson Bia, president of Pima Community College’s Desert Vista Campus, who said he would like to explore more cross-disciplinary curricula.
Beyond specific skills, the panel members said bio companies still need workers with good general science and math backgrounds — something local workforce leaders have been trying to boost recently with new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs.
Meares said technicians at his company must be able to read electronics schematics, troubleshoot equipment and use analytical tools like laser power meters and oscilloscopes.
But beyond learning specific skills, the panelists said they need employees with good problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as so-called “soft skills” — like the ability to work with others and communicate effectively.
“We look for people with problem-solving skills, good basic sciences, and the ability to communicate with scientists and solve issues for growers,” Arbico’s Phillips said. “We can map out solutions — we need people to communicate that.”
Bio5’s Hilgert noted that lists of the top attributes employers are looking for in prospective workers includes an eagerness to learn, good critical-thinking skills and, increasingly, problem-solving skills.
He said more internship programs and more intensive training for teachers could help, though funding such programs is difficult.
Hilgert suggested more internships for high school students could get more people into the bio jobs pipeline, earlier.
“Bring those together, and I wouldn’t be surprised that we get a seed of a workforce going,” he said.
Jim Mize, business services manager at the Pima County OneStop Career Centers, said his outreach team plans to gather more on workforce needs through focus groups with various industries.
Friday’s presentation was part of the county Workforce Investment Board’s focus on a sector strategy to promote targeted worker training in six areas: emerging technologies; natural and renewable resources; aerospace and defense; logistics; health science; and infrastructure.
Workforce investment board Chairman Gregg Johnson, Tucson campus director of the University of Phoenix, said after the meeting that he would like to strengthen partnerships between sectors to find common goals and resources.