Even as traditional industries in North Carolina have foundered, biotechnology has blossomed – but only for those who are willing to put in more years in the classroom.

By Stephanie Soucheray

Tobacco, textiles and timber may have built the Tar Heel State, but according to recent data cited by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, it’s biotechnology and research that’s helping create jobs for Carolinians in a post-recession economy.

A study by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, a group that analyzes technology-based economies, reported in March that there are 237,665 indirect and direct bioscience-sector jobs in the state. North Carolina was the fastest-growing bioscience state in the union, with sector growth expanding by 23.5 percent between 2001 and 2010.

“We remained strong during and after the recession,” said Jim Shamp, director of public relations for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “We gained employment in the recession while other private-sector businesses lost employment in the state.

Shamp said that after California and Massachusetts, North Carolina has the biggest bioscience sector in the country. Bioscience is especially popular among workers who’ve struck out in other sectors.

“Every month we have a jobs network meeting, and their are dozens of dozens of people in midlife career changes, or people who have been downsized looking for work,” said Shamp. “There’s more than 500 bioscience companies in the state.”

Back to school

The market may be large, but a huge key to getting one of these bioscience jobs is job training.

Unlike the textiles or tobacco of yore, bioscience jobs are rarely accessible without some advanced and specialized skill.

Just ask Lorie Solomon-Beale. Solomon-Beale is a lab research technician for Allan Brown at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, where she works in Brown’s lab studying the cancer-fighting compounds in foods such as cabbage and broccoli.

Lorie Solomon-Beale went back to school and got an associate's degree before getting her job in Brown's lab.
Lorie Solomon-Beale went back to school and got an associate’s degree before getting her job in Brown’s lab.
Lorie Solomon-Beale went back to school and got an associate’s degree before getting her job in Brown’s lab.

“My job is something different every day,” said Solomon-Beale. “It’s very diverse. Today, I was looking at cabbage cells under the microscope. The other day, I was in the greenhouse. But mostly I’m extracting glucosinolates – the cancer fighting properties – from vegetables.”

Solomon-Beale said Brown’s, and the lab’s, goal is to make a smarter vegetable by increasing glucosinolates in the produce you buy in the grocery store.

Solomon was one of the inaugural graduates of the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College Biotechnology Training Center at the N.C. Research Campus. The program prepares students, often those making a career change, for work at the campus. She sought an associate’s degree in applied sciences with about 10 other students.

“I loved science when I was a little girl and loved playing with a microscope,” said Solomon-Beale. “But I spent 20 years in the trucking industry.”

When Solomon-Beale was laid off from her job at Freightliner in Cleveland, in Rowan County, in 2007, she made the leap to go back to school.

“I hadn’t had chemistry or algebra in years,” she said. Soon she was studying recumbent DNA and bioprocessing techniques.

“It took me two and a half years, but I got my associate’s degree,” said Solomon-Beale, who received a degree in biotechnology. Training at the college prepares students to be lab techs, quality-control agents or research assistants. The campus is hoping to add agriculture and health care courses in the future.

Solomon-Beale found work in Brown’s lab. And though her job hinges on Brown’s ability to receive funding and grants, she’s grateful to have her job, but doubtful there are many success stories like hers in the state.

Though bioscience workers earn about $15 billion per year, highly skilled workers fill most of those positions.

“I grew up in Concord and lived in Kannapolis when people were working in the mills,” explained Solomon-Burke. “Many of those people thought there were jobs coming with a research campus, but you have to have advanced degrees.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...