New coordinator aims to boost Delaware biotech workforce
NEWARK – As life science companies have grown organically and been attracted to the First State in the past few years, it’s created a new challenge for the local labor market: a shortage of available workers.
To help solve that dilemma, two of Delaware’s leading organizations supporting life science research and economic growth are jointly funding a new coordinator who will help lead workforce development and university-industry relations for the sector.
The Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), which manages a partnership of government, academia and private industry for research at the University of Delaware, and the Delaware BioScience Association (Delaware Bio), an industry association for the state, announced last week that they had hired Katie Lakofsky, a trained biologist and academic leader, for the role, effective Nov. 21.
“There couldn’t be a better individual to drive this critical effort at such a pivotal time in the growth of the Delaware life science ecosystem,” said Michael Fleming, president of Delaware Bio, in a statement. “Katie has the unique combination of experience, expertise and relationships to make an immediate impact and ultimately spark partnerships and innovative approaches that strengthen and expand our bioscience workforce.”
Most recently serving as director of workforce development and community education at Delaware Technical Community College, Lakofsky told Delaware Business Times that she felt drawn to the position which felt tailor-made for her background. After spending a few years working in benchtop research at a small startup, she transitioned to the University of Delaware, where she helped build new engineering and biology programs. Now she will be challenged to help identify, train and connect workers for today’s high-tech pharmaceutical manufacturing plants and research labs.
“This is a unique time in the history of our life science industry for many different reasons,” she said. “But if there ever was a time that we needed to focus on a talent pipeline, now is it.”
In March, Delaware Bio released results of a member survey underlining significant current and future industry needs to fill roles spanning advanced manufacturing, operations, management and biomedical technology and product research and development. Every firm reported having openings at all levels of their organization, and while roles requiring bachelor’s and advanced degrees are in demand, most companies are also actively recruiting for positions requiring a high school education, training certificate or a two-year associates degree. And nearly every company said they would be interested in training partnerships with the state or an educational institution.
Lakofsky, who joined Del Tech right at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen how the labor force has changed drastically in the last two years. There are now roughly two jobs for every available worker after many older workers retired earlier than anticipated and others left to handle new familial responsibilities in the wake of the health crisis, coupled with a declining birth rate over the past few decades that has limited replacement workers.
Despite those challenges, the pandemic also forced a change in mentality for many across the industry, Lakofsky said.
“What I’ve seen in the last few years is more of an openness to having a shift in thinking. We’re all kind of taking a step back and saying we need to do things differently if we really want this to be successful,” she said.
In addition to UD and private companies, Lakofsky will be working closely with education, research and training institutions, including Delaware State University, Del Tech, NIIMBL, Nemours Children’s Health and ChristianaCare, as well as STEM education organizations and government leaders to inform plans for enhancing, building and scaling training and engagement programs. Lakofsky will be embarking on a busy schedule of conversations over the next few months to begin to understand the state’s resources and opportunities that will guide her first priorities.
“Having the position kind of lie at that intersection [of industry and academia] is important to help facilitate those conversations,” she said.
Lakofsky said she began to recognize the challenge before the state after Delaware landed the $500 million WuXi STA Pharmaceutical project in Middletown that will look to hire 500 workers in a few years. Afterward, many other employers voiced current workforce shortages, leading to the Delaware Bio survey.
“Delaware Prosperity Partnership has been doing its job in bringing in different bioscience projects,” she said, noting that she met with WuXi along with Del Tech leaders to discuss workforce needs before the company announced its site selection. “Now the question becomes, ‘How do we make folks aware of these types of careers starting in the high school Pathways programs or with folks that need some retraining to get back into the workforce?’”