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The Biotechnology Workshop at Hunter College recently graduated its first expanded class under a new workforce development program. The intensive, one-month biotech program trains college seniors for work in the city’s developing biotech industry research labs.

The workshop has been in place at Hunter since 2000, but this year, with new funds from a program called the New York City Sectors Initiative, its capacity grew from 24 to 36 students per session. The sectors initiative is a joint project between The New York City Workforce Development Funders Group and the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS). Over three years, the funders group and SBS will each contribute more than $400,000 to the workshop.

In expanding the biotech workshop, the funders group saw an opportunity to train workers for high-paying jobs in New York’s fledgling biotech industry. Shayne Spaulding at Public/Private Ventures, a partner in the sectors initiative that manages day-to-day operations and will report on the project’s results, estimated that entry-level jobs in biotech start at $40,000 per year. The sectors initiative is a demonstration project that SBS and the funders group hope will lead the way for future industry-specific training programs.

Bret Halverson, staff consultant to the funders group, called the biotech workshop “a prototype for programs we would like to see take advantage of emerging areas with high-wage jobs. If you don’t have this type of training, populations don’t have access to these jobs.”

After a lecture in the morning from Pat Rockwell, the Hunter biology professor who runs the program, the students break into three labs. After graduating from the workshop with a grade of B or better, the students are set up with a three-month internship in a biomedical or research lab. Rockwell said the workshop gives city students a big advantage in finding high-paying biotech jobs when they graduate.

“The workshop and internship give the students an advantage over students with a B.A., or even an M.A. without lab experience,” Rockwell said.

The expansion of the workshop will be funded for three years through grants from the funders group and SBS. In three years, 72 additional students will graduate from the workshop. In previous years, many workshop participants were in Hunter’s five year dual-degree program, called the Biotechnology Scholars Program, in which students earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology.

The sectors initiative money allowed Rockwell to accept students from any of the CUNY schools as long as they are biology majors and have taken a course in molecular biology.

“Most of the students are Hunter students, but we’re opening it up and encouraging students from other CUNY campuses,” said Rockwell. “We’re making a big effort to fill the third lab from students around CUNY.”

Dr. Eva Cramer, director of the Biotech Incubator at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, believes that the workshop is an important step in developing the biotech industry in New York. Cramer founded the biotech incubator at Downstate in 2000. The incubator is also an important source of internships for graduates of the workshop, allowing students to work on cutting-edge projects like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. During the three-month internship, students receive a stipend of $500 to $700.

Kara Alaimo, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Small Business Services, said that the initiative shows how the agency has restructured to “a demand-driven approach to training.”

Rather than focusing exclusively on job-seekers who need training and a job immediately, Alaimo said the department has worked over the last three years to identify the needs of employers, “and then training New Yorkers to fill those needs.”

– Matt Sollars

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