East LA getting down to work in the biotech decade

Jan Perry speaks during the Biotech Jobs workshop at the Preparing for the Biotech Decade held at East Los Angeles College October 1, 2016. Photo by David Sprague

University, business and city leaders talk to East LA families about biotech careers.

By Ron Mackovich

Four people who know the way to permanent, high-paying jobs mapped out career pathways at a biotech jobs workshop Saturday, October 1. The workshop was part of a bilingual community event for East Los Angeles families called “Preparing for the Biotech Decade,” and explored opportunities in biotechnology for people of all backgrounds and education levels.

“When I think of biotechnology, I think about improving the quality of life for others,” said Willy Zuniga, President of El Sereno based Grifols Biologicals, a major sponsor of the event. Zuniga graduated from Wilson High School in El Sereno, and earned a business degree at California State University, Los Angeles.

“I got married when I was 18. I had my first daughter when I was 20. I quit school because I had to feed my daughter,” Zuniga said. “I found Grifols. We’re making amazing medicines, we’re saving lives, and we want to expose individuals to all the massive opportunities and the different types of roles that it takes to make good quality products for our patients. We hire people who are working on certificates at community colleges, and we hire Ph.Ds.”

About 150 people listened to the panel that included Zuniga, Theda Douglas of USC government partnerships and programs, Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development General Manager Jan Perry, and moderator Maritza Dubie-Uribe of LA County Community and Senior Services.

Also on the panel was Andrew Chavez, a Grifols employee and graduate of Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

“My career’s given me two things; a living and a passion,” said Chavez. “I can provide for my daughter. She’s the fuel to my fire. Now, the sky’s the limit. When you strive to make a difference for yourself, you’ll make a difference for others.”

Chavez is on the leading edge of a national boom in biotechnology investment, one that USC hopes to bring to East Los Angeles, as the university has advocated for a biotechnology park adjacent to its Health Sciences Campus.

“We want to see people hired from Roosevelt High and East Los Angeles College,” Perry said. “People who are committed and want to stay, so people can benefit from growth and not be disenfranchised or kicked out.”

Martin Santillan, 25, stood up during the question and answer session and told Zuniga, “I want to work for you at Grifols.”

Santillan, a student at California State University, Los Angeles, said, “I want to work in the biotech field. Grifols is a great company, right here across the street from us. I appreciate that they came here and gave us this information. It’ll help me get my foot in the door in this field.”

Santillan and others like him may get into the biotech field in unconventional ways, including what Perry called “stackable degrees.”

An example of this type of incremental career-building path is USC’s Concurrent Enrollment Dental Assistant Certificate program.

“After they finish the first 15 weeks of the program, our students can receive two certificates,” said Theda Douglas, who heads the program. “One allows them to do dental x-rays and one is in infection control. So they’re eligible to go to work, but they can continue taking classes.”

Jan Perry reinforced the value of these programs, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

“A person can go in and get certified in an area of emphasis. It can be more affordable and completed in a shorter period of time for a person who’s trying to work toward a two-year or four-year degree by doing it in phases, and adding to their earning capability as they move along their academic career. You have to work and study at the same time, with no downside to that.”

More than 5,000 people graduate yearly from Los Angeles universities with degrees in science, engineering and technology – more than San Diego and San Francisco combined. Zuniga hopes to see this STEM pipeline flowing directly into East LA.

“The great dream of the biotech corridor is to bring these companies to the heart of East Los Angeles, with the USC Health Center,” Zuniga said. “Eventually, we’ll have a three or four mile corridor of high-tech companies, hotels, restaurants, everything that our community desires and deserves.”

October 1, 2016