Mass. vaccine makers not immune to labor crunch

Coronavirus Local Impact

BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts employers, especially those in skilled trades, often talk about the need to continuously attract, train and retain workers with in-demand skills, and though they are developing COVID-19 vaccines here, Moderna and Pfizer are not immune to the problem.

During a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislative Manufacturing Caucus on Tuesday, representatives from two drugmakers with physical footprints in Massachusetts told lawmakers that it has become harder to refresh their workforces with skilled workers at a time when they are both looking to increase production.

“In 2020, we went through a strong effort to prepare for what we knew was coming in the fall, a really significant scale-up and increased pace of production. And through that we almost industrialized the hiring process … but I think something that was easier last year was the initial recruiting and identification of capable and qualified staff,” Paul Granadillo, senior vice president of global supply chain for Moderna, said. “In 2021, we’ve definitely seen a significant slowdown in the market and that has started to impact our hiring rate that we feel like we need to be able to maintain the pace of continued capacity increases.”

Moderna, which is based in Cambridge, produces some of its COVID-19 vaccine at its manufacturing technology center in Norwood. The company opened the Norwood facility in July 2018 and this May announced plans to more than double its square footage in part to accommodate a 50 percent increase in the production of the COVID-19 vaccine expected late this year or early in 2022.

“So I would say that one of our most important topics is continued access to capable and qualified individuals, both for [good manufacturing practice] production as well as for quality control,” Granadillo said.

The situation is similar for Pfizer, which manufactures the mRNA substance used in its COVID-19 vaccine at a facility in Andover. Jon Tucker, Pfizer’s global supply site leader for Andover, said that building a talent pipeline through an apprenticeship program run by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s sister group MassBioEd, through relationships with local universities and colleges, and more traditional recruitment methods has been a key priority.

“The biggest challenge I think as we at Pfizer look forward is how do we continue bringing and creating the external talent pipeline in advance of the biotech sector growth,” he told the Manufacturing Caucus.

Massachusetts is already a hub of biopharma and biotech companies but MassBio said earlier this year that “Massachusetts must grow beyond R&D to develop leading-edge biomanufacturing capabilities” if it is to stay ahead of Pennsylvania and North Carolina as a leader of the life sciences industry.

“To ensure our progress continues, the state and the industry need to continue investing in biomanufacturing. There is an incredible opportunity for Massachusetts to grow beyond its role as R&D hub into an established ecosystem that supports companies across the lifecycle,” MassBio VP Ben Bradford wrote in February. “But to get there, we need mini-clusters, top talent, and regional incentives for companies.”

Cory Siddons, senior director of manufacturing at Alnylam, said his company is planning to hire about 125 new full-time employees in Massachusetts by 2025, jobs that could fit a variety of skills.

“When we talk about advanced manufacturing and biomanufacturing, the roles are very broad with a lot of different technical areas across manufacturing, engineering,” he said. “The quality unit as well within the control lab and quality assurance, even all the support functions that we have with our facilities team — IT and general administration support. So when we talk about building manufacturing capabilities in Massachusetts and in general, it goes beyond your operators on the floor.”

The competition among companies for skilled workers also contributes to lots of turnover, which drives up costs for advanced manufacturers. Each new employee has to be trained in good manufacturing practices and standards specific to their job. Training a new employee in an FDA-regulated field takes at least six months, Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing Chief Technical Officer Andrea Wagner said.

Some of the labor issues being felt by the biomanufacturing sector, though, have nothing to do with the field itself and are the kinds of issues that restauranteurs, retailers and other employers are dealing with.

“We’re definitely seeing a slowdown in responses to roles that we’re posting, roles that in previous years you would have had a real big pile of resumes. We’re seeing many fewer resumes coming through. Again, it’s not just manufacturing technicians, it’s folks from other fields as well,” Siddons said. “There are some geographical constraints, cost of living can be a challenge, and in terms of attracting talent from out of state commute and public transportation can be a challenge as well. The point about child care is a big one … because manufacturing operations is a 24/7 thing and child care is a real constraint for folks.”

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