Merck expansion spurs new degrees, training programs

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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JMU’s Melissa Lubin and BRCC President John Downey and are
collaborating on workforce programs. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Blue Ridge Community College and James Madison University are collaborating with global pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck & Co. to create curriculum and training programs centered on biotechnology, process engineering and workforce development.

Merck is investing up to $1 billion over the next three years to expand its over-75-year-old manufacturing operation at its Elkton plant in Rockingham County to increase production of its human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines.

The expansion will create approximately 100 new jobs, increasing the plant’s workforce to more than 1,000 employees.

“What Merck liked is the collaboration between the two institutions,” says Melissa Lubin, JMU’s dean of professional and continuing education. “Some of the curriculum will be from Blue Ridge and some from JMU. We’ll also have some that is co-branded.”

Blue Ridge is already attuned to the needs of manufacturing. “As a community college, economic development is at the forefront of what we do,” says the college’s president, John Downey. “We are always looking to make a difference for employers in the region by training the next generation of skilled workers.”

In anticipation of growth in pharmaceutical biomanufacturing, Blue Ridge began planning for a new bioscience building 10 years ago. Opening this month,  the facility contains a clean room and labs that can adjust with the requirements of industries. It will help the school address Merck’s needs as well as those of other manufacturers in the region, Downey says.

JMU offers an interdisciplinary science and technology degree and is also looking at developing a “concentration in advanced manufacturing,” Lubin says.

The schools are collaborating on post-education manufacturing boot camps to train recent college graduates at the community college and university levels. “A lot of college grads would be more eager to work in manufacturing if they understood the environment better,” Downey says.

The project is now in the planning stages. As part of the state’s incentive package for Merck, the schools are eligible to receive up to $2.5 million — subject to General Assembly approval — for the development of a custom workforce solution. Funding is expected in July 2020.

Blue Ridge is also working with JMU to have one of its technical degrees in bioscience and mechatronics “matriculate to JMU so students can get their bachelor’s degree,” Downey says.

The schools will meet with Merck “to find out what skills they need,” Lubin says. “Everybody will be around the same table in August.”

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