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Medical device manufacturing puts students back to work

By Jon Leckie
On February 14, 2013


With Oakland's unemployment rate hovering around 13 percent, many of those out of work are returning to school to gain new skills.

"Twelve million people in this country are out of work because they were laid off," said Peter Crabtree, dean of career and technical education at Laney College. "These workers need to shift their career focus with new skills," and being out of work is a great time to recalibrate.

But Crabtree's focus isn't only on the student, and he encourages those looking to switch careers, whether forced or voluntarily, to think about the bigger picture.

"In a broader sense, think about what drives the economy, and what plays a supportive role," Crabtree said. "Economic drivers of regional economies are production-related. Production jobs make it possible to have money to use the service sector."

For Crabtree, a healthy economy begins with robust production. But production, he insists, is no longer tied to the assembly line, especially locally.

"In the Bay Area, the economy has really improved because of a resurgence in the high-tech sector," Crabtree said, and he points to companies like Pandora and Pixar, media giants who make their home in Oakland and Emeryville.

But Crabtree points to another sector having an even greater impact, albeit an impact that is often overlooked.  Helped by the region's proximity to major universities and Silicon Valley, the Bay Area has become the second largest medical device manufacturer in the world.

"People don't know they're there," Crabtree said. "They're not visible, below the radar, but there is a high concentration in that industry."

One person who has noticed this growing field is Naima Azgui, a science instructor in the Peralta Community College District and program coordinator for Laney's Medical Device Manufacturing program.

"I'd been teaching for 12 years," Azgui said, "and found students having extreme difficulties trying to move forward in their education. I wanted them to move forward, but it is very difficult. They are poor and unemployed."

Now heading into its third year, the Medical Device Manufacturing program began with a grant from Alameda County's Workforce Investment Board (WIB), a regional organization devoted to directing local, state and federal funds towards workforce development.

"I basically had the layout for my program, but I needed money to run the program and we were in the middle of this economic crisis," she said.

But Azgui's vision of training workers for a growing industry right in the Bay Area caught the eye of the WIB, and 21 students, most of whom were former NUMMI workers who had been laid-off when the West Coast's last auto plant closed its doors in 2010, began the program in 2011.

In order for the program to be successful, Azgui's students required practical, hands-on training in addition to lectures in physics, technical math, electronics and courses in SolidWorks and CAD design for graduates to get their foot in the door. "If you want to train a technician, you need to train them in an industry standard environment," she said. "More and more this sector needs high-skilled technicians."

To achieve this, Azgui teamed up with Paul Lum, managing director and principle engineer at UC Berkeley's Bimolecular Nanotechnology Center. Lum, who volunteers his time and his laboratory for the program, provides a place for students to learn in the same environment they will eventually be working in. 

Aguzi's students are able to utilize Lum's research center for key components of the course, including work in a clean room, something not available at Laney College.

Deborah Long, a 2012 graduate, was laid off from her telecommunications job after 37 years, and applied to nearly 200 jobs in her field before enrolling in the medical device program.

Working in a clean room is "not something I had done before," she said, "but the work I do right now is in that environment."

Azgui stresses that the program is heavy in hands-on training, technical and very pragmatic. "My goal is not simply graduation-my goal is job placement. That's the mission of my program," she said.

So far, Azgui has seen success. Long had been out of work for 16 months. After graduation, it took only 12 days before she started her new job. Out of the 21 students who began Azgui's program in 2011, 16 found work almost as fast.

"Our actual placement rate is above 70 percent," Crabtree said. "Could easily be above 90 percent, but some de-select themselves" because of issues more closely related to their personal lives, something the program also tries to address with free tuition, books, lunches, parking passes and access to public transportation.

Jim Riker, also a 2012 graduate, was a stay-at-home dad before deciding to re-enter the workforce. After his graduation in September, "I started working in November, and I was one of the last ones to be employed," Riker said. "Fourteen of us started, and 11 of us are employed."

Both Riker and Long now work for IntegenX, a manufacturer and developer of rapid DNA identification technology in Pleasanton. They help build a machine that allows DNA to be analyzed in only 90 minutes. Traditionally, DNA identification could take up to four weeks.

"A lot of the computer revolution we've seen has not crossed over into the medical industry in terms of increased power in a small size," Riker said. "Our goal is to shrink the lab equipment using micro-fluid devices. They're becoming quite popular."

More importantly, however, students appear to be happy in their new careers. "I don't think I could have found a better program to get into," Long said. "I think my employer now sees the value in my work."

"The program made for a good transition back into work," Riker said. "It's intellectually stimulating, and it was a good experience."

With a pair of new grants from the Department of Labor, the program appears to be set to last for at least another three years. Azgui looks to begin the next cohort April 1; three years to the day after the NUMMI factory closed its doors for good.

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