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Waggoner, Smitherman: Alabama needs a biotech training center to support a vital, growing industry

Alabama is a great place to do business, but we can be even better by helping employers address what they continually describe as their biggest challenge: finding workers with the right skills to get the job done.

Businesses can’t thrive and grow if they can’t find qualified workers. Individuals can’t thrive without good jobs that sustain their families. Our state must be more strategic in taking steps to meet the needs of employers by offering targeted paths to train our citizens for good, available jobs.

We are excited that we have an opportunity to do both – and in an industry that is critical to Birmingham’s current economy and to its future.

As currently written, the state of Alabama’s education budget for 2025 includes a $5 million initial investment to create a biomedical workforce training center in Birmingham. The workforce center would prepare people for entry-level careers in the biomedical industry, offering students a chance to earn credentials to work as lab technicians and in other less-than-bachelor-degree roles that are both vital and in high demand in the research and development industry.

The training center will be built on the former site of the Southtown Court public housing community. That’s near the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which is the state’s largest employer and an undisputed leader in biomedical research. It is even closer to Southern Research, a nonprofit that is the state’s largest non-academic recipient of research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Many people being trained at the biotech workforce training center could literally be within walking distance of future employers.

The Southtown site is also central to a larger plan to take Birmingham’s biomedical industry to a whole new level.

The vision for the Southtown property is that it will become a part of the state’s first Research and Development Corridor, an innovative new concept that would be possible under legislation also pending in the state Legislature.

Under this bill, cities will be authorized to designate a specific geographic area in their jurisdictions as a Research and Development Corridor. If cities choose, they can exempt businesses in that zone from paying noneducational taxes. Those businesses could in turn pay fees to be used as a resource to encourage future investment and leverage federal research/development grants within the Corridor.

The biotech workforce center will support workforce needs in research facilities across the state, and the research corridor framework will benefit not only Birmingham but also other Alabama cities that want to see growth in research and development businesses. By advancing both of these measures, the Alabama Legislature is helping to position the state’s biomedical industry for significant growth.

We do not want to miss this opportunity.

According to a 2023 report from United for Medical Research, funding from just one source – the National Institutes of Health — created $5.9 billion in new economic activity for Alabama from 2016 to 2022, while supporting 38,650 jobs. The report also notes that research and development jobs on average pay two times as much as jobs in other sectors.

And we have by no means topped out the potential for growth.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that national employment in the healthcare field will grow by 2 million jobs, or 13%, by 2031. Biomedical scientists are expected to be among the fastest-growing healthcare jobs, with employment projected to grow 10 percent by 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations.

In addition to the positive outlook for this industry overall, the Birmingham metro area has a specific opportunity to be a part of that growth. We were recently one of only 31 regions across the country to be designated as a federal Tech Hub. We were selected out of almost 200 applications, and our success hinged on the strength of our current biotech sector and our potential to do even bigger things.

As a Tech Hub, Birmingham is competing for $75 million in federal funding, a level of investment that could be a game changer for our community.

But to capitalize on this kind of opportunity, we must have the right pieces in place, and we are proud to be making headway during this legislative session.

Research and Development Corridors will make us a much more attractive place to launch or locate a biomedical business, and the biotech workforce training center will ensure we have the right people in place to support those businesses.

Laying the foundation for economic development through quality workforce development is not a new concept in Alabama. We have a successful track record of creating specialized training centers, including the advanced manufacturing training facility located at the Alabama Robotics Technology Park, which received a $30 million investment from the state last year.

This year’s initial $5 million for a biotech workforce training will meet an existing workforce need, and it will provide our citizens with a pathway to good, sustainable jobs in one of our biggest and most promising industries. We believe that if we create a path for people to get in the workforce, to get the right skills for the right jobs, we can unleash more potential for economic growth than this state has ever seen.

It’s a win for people who need good jobs, a win for the biotech industry, and a win for our state.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner represents Senate District 16 in the Alabama Legislature. Sen. Rodger Smitherman represents Senate District 18 in the Alabama Legislature.

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