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$500,000 federal grant awarded to UofA for biomanfacturing workforce

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration recently announced 11 recipients of their 2023 STEM Talent Challenge. One of those 11 winners was the University of Arkansas, who presented a project to develop and implement a biomanufacturing workforce training program. Toby Teeter and Tara Dryer are the co-pilots on this new program.

Toby Teeter: And what we were working on at the time as we were touring other facilities across the United States, including Texas A&M, where they are advancing bio manufacturing through workforce development. Essentially, there's a new field where you can take the abstract human cells, manipulate them and put them back into a human. And this is really a manufacturing process that is emerging. And there's a lot of fast, high growth companies in this space throughout Europe and parts of North America countries are having and there is a venture capital firm here based in Bentonville that is making some investments in that space. And it's our hopes to actually attract contract biomass manufacturing companies to Arkansas. And we have some initial commitments, however, we need to build the workforce for this brand new industry. So we see this as a as a seed opportunity to begin that process.

Matthew: Let's explain just a little bit of like, what does the education process look like? Are we looking at something similar to like a technical school kind of more in the world of like a community college sort of program and what is the University of Arkansas relationship in this? Obviously, they have the infrastructure and knowledge of how to put together educational curriculum elements like how do those two work together?

Tara Dryer: The goal is to allow anybody that has an interest in this to be able to come in into the program and be successful. So really, you don't need any skills before coming into this program. It's a short term training program, and then the ultimate goal would be to create other educational and career pathways for people that take the short term training and you can hopefully stack it into other programs along the way.

Toby: Tara leads and effort within the University of Arkansas, around workforce development. This is not new to the university. There is a team of curriculum designers that makes short form noncredit education in cooperation with employers. So this has been an a long standing leg at the University of Arkansas. What's happening though, is with all this new federal dollars, trying to catalyze innovation and doing deep STEM workforce training is really the opportunity to take federal dollars to deploy that here in the State of Arkansas, and bring along our workforce into this emerging fields including bio manufacturing.

Matthew: Obviously an element of this is the educational element of it and making sure that the infrastructure is there in that place, but there also has to be a recruitment element to this too, right? How are you informing folks who may not even know that this is something they could be interested in? How are you making sure that you're finding and recruiting people who are eligible for this and may not even know that they're interested in doing this until they get into it?

Tara: So similar to what we've done with other workforce development programs, we will launch an online social media campaign when the curriculum is ready to be launched, so that we're able to reach all corners of the state of Arkansas. The other thing that we're doing is we do have a commitment from the Office of Skills Development in the state of Arkansas to help spread the word across the state to various individuals that are looking to upskill reskill or retool and get into the workforce.

Matthew: It should be known that this is part of probably why this is an online and a hybrid sort of education program is that this is not just a northwest Arkansas thing. This is really seeking out people from all across the state to participate, to build skills and to find jobs very quickly in this world. Right.

Tara: Exactly.

Matthew: I remember when I was in college 10 or 15 years ago that there was this idea that there are kids being born now who are going to have jobs that didn't exist then I feel like that timeline is getting smaller and smaller with every passing year that we're creating jobs now that we didn't know existed a year ago at this point? So it's really fascinating to see how this growth is happening. How do you anticipate this sort of work, looking five years from now?

Toby: Well, we're here in Bentonville and this is just a test case for so many other things happening just here in Bentonville. The pace of change the people that are assembling in this town and across northwest Arkansas, the emerging fields including AI and bio manufacturing. You're correct. Northwest Arkansas is becoming kind of bleeding edge and technology and more and more. More people are coming here and bringing kind of tomorrow with them. So yes, it's a huge opportunity. You're absolutely correct.

We’re trying to create curriculum. And this is actually a new form of education. And this is this is happening across sectors that the idea of micro credentialing and badging, it runs the gamut from credentialing this bleeding edge kind before formal education, or at least credit degree programming even exist, there's an opportunity to create credentialing around these experiences and creating the short form noncredit education to quickly get people into this emerging workforce.

Matthew: Do you imagine you'll see a group of folks who are not your traditional students who are the kinds of folks who maybe didn't excel in a traditional classroom but finds interest in this sort of stuff or are kind of geared more towards this sort of world that this nontraditional style of education will really benefit a new group of people?

Tara: Yeah, there's a lot of great jobs and career pathways out there for individuals who don't want to go that traditional route. And I think that in the future, people are going to be able to present a portfolio of educational experiences. And a lot of those could be short term training programs that they can show and demonstrate their ability to perform in a particular industry.

Matthew: As we kind of zoom out a little bit and we look at the economic impact that something like this will have on the state of Arkansas as a whole. We're very early in the beginning process of this program, but what do you think, you know, on a large scale the economic impact will be here and even bringing in people from other states to say I want to go to Arkansas because they have this sort of program?

Toby: Well, there's a whole list of emerging fields that don't yet even exist in the state of Arkansas. Just like you said, one of the fastest growing positions that are half happening or underrepresented here in Northwest Arkansas across the state. These are examples where we're diversifying our employment base in creating new opportunities for people from Arkansas or to relocate to Arkansas. This lifts a lot of boats outside of deep med-tech. The reality is, is when existing employers are recruiting talent in Northwest Arkansas and beyond, you have situations where a Walmart executive might have a spouse that has a master's in biochemistry.

We're constantly fighting the situation where we have this monochrome kind of economy here around retail, and there's more and more effort on the economic development front to actually diversify our economy across the state of Arkansas and here in Northwest Arkansas. So these kinds of wins are important to establish a broader base and it allows more opportunity for our children or grandchildren, and our spouses as we recruit talent to Northwest Arkansas. And you're right, like so many of these positions haven't existed for more than a few years. And it's really important for the state to really understand that so many of these kinds of STEM — these deep STEM positions — are the future. These are efforts where the University of Arkansas is really stretching to attract federal dollars to this market and build out new programming and new pathways for these new fields.

Talent attraction and retention is key to growing our economy and a four-year degree program is not for everybody. And this is an opportunity for someone coming out of high school or a community college setting where in just a few weeks, they can get this micro credential that will get them into a lab coat working in a clinical setting and making upwards of $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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