Mason leads planning study to position Northern Virginia as a premier location for the life science industry

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During the past several years, industry demand for a skilled life science workforce has been surging. In Virginia, while there are currently shortages in almost all health-related professions, little is known about whether there is an adequate supply of life science workers to meet the needs of employers. Now George Mason University is working toward a solution.

In partnership with Phoenix Advantage, a Virginia-based economic development and business consulting firm, Caroline Sutter of Mason’s College of Public Health; Amy Adams, executive director of the Institute for Biohealth Innovation; and their team have received a life science talent pathway planning grant from GO Virginia, a state-funded initiative administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

a hand is shown adding liquid to a slide under a microscope
Microbiology students are part of the life sciences workforce pipeline. 
File photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communication

With the assistance of the award, they will be assessing life science employer needs, employment trends, workforce supply, and demand projections in Northern Virginia. Provided that future funding is secured, they intend to use their findings to facilitate the expansion of the life science worker pipeline.

“A robust workforce is a vital component of a thriving life science industry,” said Susan Baker, managing director of GO Virginia. "GO Virginia is proud to support an effort to establish Northern Virginia as an area that is able to respond to the needs of a steadily growing market."

According to Adams, the first step of the project will be to create a comprehensive list of companies who hire individuals in the life science sector, such as digital health firms and biomanufacturers. From there, Phoenix Advantage will schedule interviews with the identified employers in order to better understand their priorities and what they consider to be the ideal skillset in the future workforce.

In tandem, the Mason Center for Health Workforce (MCHW), directed by Sutter and P. J. Maddox, will leverage data from the Commonwealth of Virginia to assess the future pipeline of  workers, including secondary school and higher education students. Established in 2022, the MCHW plays a leading role in health workforce planning and development across Virginia. The center has collected extensive data related to health workers and will expand to include life science personnel with this project.

“The health care workforce is in flux; demand is high just as burnout, turnover, and rising labor costs are diminishing the supply of qualified staff,” said Sutter, who is also an associate professor in Mason’s School of Nursing. “The Mason Center for Health Workforce helps organizations, communities, and the commonwealth use data for decision-making to create short-term solutions and long-term strategies.”

Seeing tremendous value in the team’s effort to optimize life science workforce preparedness, the Claude Moore Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Virginia and a key funder of the MCHW, provided matching funds for the planning grant.

female student sitting in front of a computer running a VR simulation
 A VR Simulation Lab training class. File Photo by
Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications

“The vibrancy and growth of the life science ecosystem in Northern Virginia depends in part on our ability to understand workforce needs and to attract and train talent,” said Bill Hazel, the senior deputy director of the Claude Moore Foundation. “This grant will allow us to inventory those needs and to strengthen our talent pipeline.”

The next step of the project will be to identify existing education and training programs so that redundancies can be avoided and potential gaps can be addressed. Finally, an analysis will be performed on how workers and employers are currently matched in the life sciences industry.

Adams said she believes the Northern Virginia region has immense potential to be the destination for life science companies to reside and prosper. She added that she hopes the team’s work will result in the formation of programs that motivate students to pursue careers in the life sciences.

“We want to reach students at early stages and show them that the life science career path is one that is extremely rewarding; you are able to touch many lives around the world by developing innovative solutions to advance health,” said Adams. “By sparking inspiration, we can also help companies in our region flourish by ensuring access to a well-prepared and sufficiently sized workforce—both are what drive us.”