A continuum of learning
JMU, BRCC partner to secure Merck investment
While grocery shopping one evening in February 2019, Melissa Lubin received a phone call from Jay Langston, the new executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership.
A major employer in the region was looking to expand its operations, Langston told her, with more than 100 high-paying jobs and a multiyear investment that could reach $1 billion. State economic development officials, along with a representative from Blue Ridge Community College, were going to attend the meeting, he said. “We need someone from JMU. Can you be there?”
The next morning, Lubin, dean of professional and continuing education at James Madison University, and John Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College, listened as officials outlined the company’s workforce needs, which included curriculum and training programs in advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and process engineering.
“Jay wanted to know, ‘Can we deliver, can we work together?’” Lubin recalls. “And John and I looked at each other and said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
The company, later identified as pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc., was expanding operations at its Elkton plant to boost production of its human papillomavirus vaccines.
“We really played to our strengths,” Lubin says.
JMU is one of the only schools on the East Coast to offer undergraduate biotechnology programs. The program draws on faculty and staff in two colleges to provide instruction in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, integrated science and technology. Meanwhile, BRCC’s new bioscience building is specifically designed to support industry needs.
As part of the Merck agreement, JMU and BRCC will receive up to $2.5 million in state economic development incentives over the next five years to address the workforce needs of major employers in the region.
The committee’s proposal included funding for a post-degree manufacturing boot camp, led by Blue Ridge, to train recent graduates at the community college and university levels who lack manufacturing experience, as well as current workers.
For its part, JMU has agreed to hire a biotechnology director to oversee curriculum development to meet Merck’s workforce needs over the next several years.
JMU is also charged with developing adult degree program courses and certificates to prepare workers to take on more responsibilities and management positions in the future.
In addition, the proposal contained funding for two regional manufacturing liaisons — one at each school — who would help ensure that workforce development needs are being met at Merck and other area employers.
Finally, the proposal allowed graduates of BRCC’s advanced manufacturing program with a specialization in biotechnology to matriculate at JMU to earn a four-year degree.
Last September, Merck put in a request for 12 to 15 student interns to begin working full time at the Elkton plant this year.
“It was a tight turnaround, but we delivered,” Lubin says. “This is a win-win for everybody. It’s a win-win for Merck because they needed these positions quickly. It’s a win-win for the students because they’re getting work experience, and they’re getting connected to a local employer. And they’re going to be able to figure out, ‘Is this what I want to do?’”
Ultimately, it was JMU and BRCC’s commitment to work together that won Merck’s investment.
Lubin says JMU’s collaboration with BRCC offers a model for economic development across the commonwealth.
“Workforce is on a continuum, a continuum of learning,” she says. “It’s not an either/or [situation]. It’s not my students/your students. We’re one big, long continuum. And there are gateways in and out. The more we can figure out how to work together so that workers are free to get trained and retrained as needed over the course of their careers, the better off we’ll be.”