Only a dusty September cornfield separates the Johnston County Workforce Development Center from the plant of Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
While one churns out insulin products, the other trains one- and two-year students vying for jobs there or just down the road at blood plasma producer Grifols.
Last Tuesday, the Workforce Development Center celebrated its 10th anniversary, not with cake or balloons, like most 10-year-olds, but with a nearly $2 billion expansion announcement from Novo Nordisk. The company’s doubling down on Johnston County reverberated nationally, with Clayton beating out competing sites in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and some in the audience on Tuesday pointed to the Workforce Development Center as a major factor.
“I don’t think we would have heard that announcement last week without this facility,” said David Johnson, president of Johnston Community College, which operates the Workforce Development Center. “It is the envy of every community college in the state.”
An incentives package of grants and tax breaks likely made a compelling case, but Gary Lohr, Novo Nordisk’s new plant project director, said the workforce center was on the minds of company leaders when they chose a construction site.
“We’re always looking at talent acquisition and workforce placement when choosing a site,” Lohr said. “If the [workforce center] wasn’t here, we would have to look at bringing in talent from other states.”
Similarly, Grifols, Johnston County’s largest private employer, credited the center with making the company’s growth in Clayton easy.
The center “attracts the talent that we need and provides the training we need in an area that's specialized for us,” said Suzanne Johnson, director of human resources for Grifols. “It helps ensure the availability of talent; we would have a much more difficult time attracting and training talent.”
Grifols and the Workforce Development Center are neighbors along U.S. 70 Business, and like good neighbors, they’ve become well acquainted over the years.
“We utilize their facilities for training, for meetings, job fairs; their team contacts current and former Bioworks students and invites them to the fairs,” Suzanne Johnson said. “By the time a worker starts, we’ve already had multiple opportunities to visit with them, and they learn how to work at Grifols pretty quickly.”
The Workforce Development Center held its grand opening in August of 2005 but began offering training courses for Novo Nordisk employees a month earlier.
“They came to us with a training request for their workers, and we set up screens and held training 24 hours a day, seven days a week before we were even open,” said Joy Callahan, director of the Workforce Development Center.
In 10 years, the center has enrolled more than 29,000 students in 2,100 classes. Callahan said students come for two reasons – to receive the training needed to break into a new field or to receive advanced training as required by an employer. The latter camp consists largely of the center’s neighbors at Grifols and Novo Nordisk, she said.
The center hosts classes in everything from Spanish to real estate but is best known for its pharmacy technology and biotechnology classes. If visitors to last week’s anniversary lunch had continued on past the buffet, they would have found a lab filled with an assembly line of empty glass vials and a clothes rack of white lab coats. In there, students learn how to work on the production line for a pharmaceutical company while pursuing a one-year certificate, two-year associate’s degree or advanced training.
Leslie Holston, director of biotechnology at JCC, said advanced training for Grifols and Novo Nordisk employees represents about a fourth of her students.
“With a two-year degree in biotech, someone could make more than $40,000,” Holston said. “A lot of people think you need a four-year degree to be able to do this kind of work.”
At the luncheon, a number of people approached Chris Johnson, Johnston County’s economic-development director, with words of congratulations on the Novo Nordisk deal, a full week after the announcement. Johnson said the county loses 50,000 workers daily to commutes north and west. It’s his job, he said, to turn those cars around.
“If we have more high-quality jobs and more workers qualified to perform those jobs, that’s more people we keep in the county and more sales tax we can collect,” Johnson said. “Finding quality workers is key for any industry, whether it’s a truck stop or something in the high-tech field.”
Natasha Johnson, a graduate of both the pharmacy tech and biotech program, told the crowd that the center had taken her from a decade of waiting tables to the night shift at Grifols. She enrolled in classes last summer and landed a job this past winter.
“I just didn’t want to wait on anybody anymore,” she said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson