Lessons in Community Collaboration- What can Biotech Centers Learn from the Cooperative Efforts of Ceva, Grafton Scientific Staffing, and Johnson Country Community College?

In Kansas City, Kansas, the cooperative efforts of large vaccine producer Ceva,  Grafton Scientific Staffing, and Johnson County Community College led to significant benefits for all three parties. 

Ceva has better-trained employees and less employee turnover.  Grafton Scientific Staffing has an expanded market niche.  And Johnson County Community College is able to train new biotech employees and help them maintain employment, which is in line with their mission.

Depending on how far back you want to go, you can say that “the story began” when Johnson County Community College (JCCC) was first established in 1967.  Or you can say the story really began when a prominent research facility, Stower’s Institute for Medical Research, was established in Kansas City in 2000 and a strong biotech training program at JCCC was required with various levels of certifications and degrees to provide the institute with skilled workers.

This particular story began, however, when French company Ceva bought a local Kansas City vaccine company in 2005 and began to build on its vaccine expertise.  Ceva absorbed many biotech graduates from JCCC but consistently needed more trained workers than were available.  The need for skilled workers was acute and projected to continue into the future.

Ceva needed trained workers but didn’t have time for them to complete one of the usual biotech training programs at JCCC, which were two to four semesters in length.  [B1]  

Ceva spoke to scientific staffing agencies in the area and asked, “What can you do to help us?”  Grafton Scientific Staffing actually took the lead in solving the problem; they spoke with Ceva and Ceva spoke with JCCC. 

JCCC determined Ceva’s needs and developed a curriculum that fit the vaccine developer’s time constraints.  Grafton assumed actual responsibility for the students, providing them as contract employees to Ceva until their training was completed[B2] .  Ceva cooperated with JCCC and made arrangements for the contract employees to complete thirty-five hours of training over two weeks, being absent from the plant during those training hours.

To date, ten[B3]  training sessions have been completed.  New employee retention at Ceva is much improved. Grafton has defined itself in a new way in the KC scientific staffing market.  And JCCC is able to fulfill its mission to a greater degree.

This is a happy story, but what were the tough points along the road?  What were the places at which people needed to demonstrate creativity and flexibility, so that these relationships could develop? 

First, it should be mentioned that before the new training and employment structures were developed, Ceva, Grafton, and JCCC already had long-standing relationships.  The different parties felt that they could rely on each other.  Dr. Luanne Wolfgram, a microbiology professor at JCCC, was particularly known to provide excellent training for people entering biotech fields. 

Still, even given this history and level of trust, all parties were called upon to be creative and flexible during the process.  First, Ceva needed to articulate its needs and repeat those needs until someone, in this case Grafton, heard and responded.  Grafton actually took a leadership role in suggesting a new type of training process and persuaded Ceva and JCCC to try it.  Dr. Luanne Wolfgram at JCCC needed to demonstrate extreme flexibility, as the training of Grafton-based potential hires occurred on a “pop-up” basis, whenever a critical number of new students accumulated.  Dr. Wolfgram has a full time job even without squeezing in this on-the-spot training, so her flexibility was key.  Ceva needed to be flexible in finding a way for the Grafton-based new hires to be absent from the plant as much as needed to accomplish their training.

In short, these creative responses, which resulted in well-trained and more stable new biotech employees, first required that all parties had a history with each other and trusted each other.  A further critical requirement was that all parties were willing to take some risk, venture into unknown territory, and yield when necessary.