College of Science and Mathematics

Building A Better Workforce

Building A Better Workforce

Role Of Higher Education Discussed



— If local officials are going to successfully attract and retain biotechnology companies to the Shenandoah Valley, area universities, colleges and technical schools must churn out employees with the skills those businesses demand.

That, attendees were told Monday afternoon at the James Madison University and Shenandoah Valley Biotech Showcase, is what the university, Blue Ridge Community College and local technical centers are working hard to do.

“On the workforce side, the numbers [of students] and the study areas are driven by which companies stay in the Valley,” John Downey, BRCC’s president, told a group of about 50 state and local business leaders, college officials and students assembled in JMU’s bioscience building. “The numbers depend on how many employees are needed.”

It’s likely that no single institution can provide all the workers a company needs. Downey said that while JMU might educate scientists who could work on pharmaceutical solutions to health issues at Merck & Co.’s plant south of Elkton, BRCC could help train the technicians who would produce the vaccines they develop.

Meeting those needs, he added, could require anything from career- study certificate programs to
credit and noncredit programs.

Maria Bechtel, director of JMU’s biotechnology program, said the department focuses on building skills beyond scientific knowledge and laboratory experience. Professors also expect their students to develop critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and communication skills.

“We see a lot of kids,” she said, “who never learned how to learn beyond memorization.”

Those nonscientific skills are required for many jobs at SRI Shenandoah Valley, said Kathlynn Brown, the company’s director of macromolecular bioscience.

She said the abilities to communicate across disciplines and “think outside the box” are valuable for researchers looking to solve complex problems.

“We need a very broadly trained workforce,” said Brown, who along with her staff members works on protein- or peptide-based therapies for diseases such as cancer.

Those skills aren’t just required on the job, said Downey. Local colleges, universities and technical centers need to collaborate to help students see the possible connections between agriculture, science and manufacturing.

Students also don’t have to choose a career path and get all their education up front before entering the workforce. Downey said they could spend two years getting an associates degree, get a good job and work while pursuing their baccalaureate degree.

“We have to stop pitting career and technical education,” he said, “against a four-year college degree.”

Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574 6279 or

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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