From Chips to Proteins: Former Intel Employees Begin Biomanufacturing Training at WPI
In response to the loss of hundreds of jobs at the Intel computer chip manufacturing facility in Hudson, Mass., the Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center (BETC) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has launched a customized training program to help former Intel employees shift their careers in a new direction.
On May 11, former Intel employees began the first session of an intensive 80-hour course called Bioprocessing Unit Operations that will provide hands-on training in a pilot scale biomanufacturing suite and associated laboratories at the BETC.
"Helping displaced workers adapt their skills for biomanufacturing is an important part of the mission at our center," said Kamal Rashid, PhD, director of the BETC and research professor at WPI. "This group of people worked in a highly regulated, cleanroom environment, with strict procedures and computer-controlled manufacturing systems. With the proper training, that experience gives them a head start for a career in biomanufacturing."
The new training program represents the latest partnership between WPI and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as former Intel employees qualify for tuition grants from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"Our administration is proud to be a part of collaborative opportunities that strengthen the workforce of the Commonwealth," said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. "This partnership between the state and WPI not only helps former Intel employees refine their marketable skills, it also helps keep Massachusetts competitive by retaining talented, experienced workers who contribute so much to their communities. After visiting WPI's Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center on our first day in office, Governor Baker and I are pleased to see its continuing positive impact for the Commonwealth."
In the fall of 2013, Intel announced it would close the Hudson manufacturing plant, eventually eliminating 700 jobs. (Intel’s microprocessor development center, also in Hudson with over 900 employees, is not affected.) Over the past two years, headcount at the manufacturing plant dropped through attrition and by people transferring to other Intel plants around the country. The largest rounds of layoffs occurred this spring with several hundred people losing their jobs in March and April. Approximately 200 employees are still working at the Hudson plant on decontamination and demolition projects that are expected to conclude later this year.
With the closing date looming, a group of Intel employees reached out to WPI in early 2015 and asked the BETC team to advise them about retraining to enter the biomanufacturing sector. Some were familiar with the program that WPI and the state developed to help displaced Polaroid workers and they wanted to explore a similar opportunity. Several informal meetings followed, with the BETC staff providing information about the biomanufacturing industry and assessing the skills of the soon-to-be-displaced Intel workers. At those meetings, many Intel employees said they wanted to stay in Massachusetts but they knew finding a comparable job was not an option. Intel was the only major chip-maker in the state, so they would have to change career paths, and biomanufacturing seemed like a good option.
"Employees from Intel are eligible for tuition grants for retraining as part of a biotech national emergency grant our office sought from the federal government to help these workers, and others," said Massachusetts Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II. "Our career centers provide personal case management, skill assessment, and reemployment assistance as we continue to evolve in partnership with employers, institutions like WPI, and others to quickly return Massachusetts families to economic viability."
Among the students in the program is Myles Johnson, who grew up in Spencer, Mass., and now lives in Worcester. Johnson worked the night shift at Intel for 14½ years. He has nothing but praise for Intel as a company, but decided not to move to another Intel plant in Arizona or Oregon. He chose to attend the BETC program because he believes biotechnology and biomanufacturing are growth industries for Massachusetts. The customized program’s full-time schedule and accelerated pace was also an important factor, Johnson said, because it facilitates a more rapid transition. "It's exciting to have this opportunity to try something that's a bit different but really has a lot of the same requirements for good manufacturing practices, which is what we've been doing," he said.
Family concerns and the tug of roots in the community were also the motivation for Gary Vu to to decline the opportunity to move to another Intel plant. A native of Vietnam, Vu immigrated to the United States in 1983. He’s lived in Worcester since 1989 and worked at the Hudson plant for 10 years. "Intel is a great company and I would like to continue working there," Vu said. "But my children are in school, my wife has a good job at the Family Health Center, and we like Worcester. So when you look around, you see biotech is big in Massachusetts and I think it will be for a long time."
Biomanufacturing uses living cells to produce therapeutic proteins that treat a range of diseases including cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Biologic drug development is the fastest-growing segment of the therapeutics industry, and a particular strength in the Northeast. WPI created the BETC not only to retrain displaced workers, but primarily to help the overall biomanufacturing industry grow by expanding the qualified workforce available to biomanufacturers. The BETC also helps companies limit their risks and comply with FDA guidelines by training, and re-training, their employees at a state-of-the-art center that is removed from their own production facilities. The center also offers a range of consulting services to help biotechnology companies deal with challenges or institute best practices in their operations.
"A diverse, technology-driven economy will always face transitions and disruptions," said Stephen Flavin, WPI's vice president for academic and corporate engagement. "At the BETC, and across many disciplines at WPI, we strive to develop partnerships that leverage the university's capabilities to help people and companies succeed."