Sourcing the Force

Recruiting employees isn’t currently a problem for advanced biofuel companies, but as the industry grows, a lack of engineers may pose problems.
By Anna Simet | December 26, 2013

Despite being met with a number of hurdles including a challenging financial climate, the advanced biofuel industry, utilizing an array of first-ever technologies, has been gradually and steadily growing over the past several years. As more advanced biofuel companies achieve commercialization, another obstacle may be on the horizon: sourcing employees armed with necessary skills, a potential problem that, among several potential measures, may be combatted with the crafting of recruitment strategies.

Considering the relative youth and state of the industry, most companies, including isobutanol manufacturer Gevo Inc., haven’t yet encountered issues. “There are two components to our workforce, and the first is scientists in the lab,” says Brett Lund, Gevo chief licensing officer. “A lot of us [industry stakeholders] are doing a great job training these folks to enter the workforce, and so far we really haven’t had a hard time hiring and recruiting folks to join us. There are a number of people who have been in this field, and then there those in the general biotech community—particularly the pharmaceutical side—who have similar skill sets. They aren’t exactly the same, but they have a pretty sufficient background.” 


For Gevo, which operates an 18 MMgy facility in Luverne, Minn., its business model has generated an employment model on its own. “We retrofit existing ethanol plants—our first plant was one that we purchased from Agri Energy, and it had a workforce already there running the plant when we purchased it,” Lund says. “We maintained employment of all folks who were operating the plant, and brought on a few of our people to modify it to make isobutanol. So for us, we already had the workforce in place. Those employees were very familiar with the plant, so the only challenge for us was getting them up to speed on our technology that we retrofitted the plant with, and how to operate it as an isobutanol plant.” 

The main changes from the existing ethanol plant to the biobutanol plant include use of different yeast, the addition of a separation system and a number of different operating procedures. “There’s no instruction manual on how to operate an isobutanol plant because nobody has done it before,” Lund points out. “In essence, we were writing the operating manual as we were starting up the plant, and we’re still continuing to learn all of the best practices. It’s quite a bit different than running an ethanol plant, but at least our employees have that background.”  

Most companies in the advanced biofuel space are building facilities in green field locations, which means hiring new people who haven’t operated a plant of its kind. “It might be more challenging for them to get the right people,” Lund says.

College courses and university programs aimed at training graduates for the field have drastically changed in the past few years, Lund says. “Even just in terms of scientific disciplines,” he says. “To create our yeast, we genetically engineer it using metabolic engineering, techniques that weren’t known 15 to 20 years ago. They were first put into use in the pharmaceutical space, then moved into the ag biotech space, and has now moved more into the industrial biotech space. A lot of advances have come over time, and how we apply those advances over different fields has evolved. People are becoming more interested in green and clean technologies, and as our country becomes more environmentally friendly, people are becoming more interested in that as a career path.” 

Colleges and universities have responded to that demand and are a driving force behind engaging the interest. “They’ve put together new courses that I had never seen or heard of before in green tech or biofuels,” he says.  “Locally, the University of Colorado at Boulder does a lot of work in green tech and clean tech and Colorado State University  has a pretty substantial program as well. Those two are doing a lot of work, things that not only start in the classroom, but also kind of bridge the gap into the commercial space and expose their students to companies.”

Sue Hager of Myriant Inc. agrees with Lund that the initiatives being taken by colleges and universities to encourage students to consider relevant career paths are having positive impacts. “They’re doing a great job in getting the word out that they will have a job, and that’s really important because there’s a huge need for engineers.” 

Myriant operates a biosuccinic acid plant  Lake Providence, La., and Hager says that since its flagship facility is located in a region that is in need of jobs, sourcing needed employees there wasn’t an issue. On top of that, the state boasts one of the top workforce training programs in the nation, LED FastStart.  “It assists with everything when you decide to locate there [Louisiana]—providing incentives, but also recruiting and job fairs to developing training modules for employees that you hire. We’ve went through the program and have put together a customized training program to people we’re bringing on. Separate from that, we have a program that sends people who are working in our labs down in Lake Providence to our research facilities in Massachusetts to shadow scientists, and vice versa. 

Hager says Myriant is also fortunate enough to have a great relationship with ThyssenKrupp Uhde, which developed a validation facility in Leuna, Germany, where Myriant proved its biosuccnic acid production process and has employees trained. 

The industry as a whole should be mindful of the fact that more engineers will be needed, and encouraging more women to take up that career path could help, as it has traditionally been dominated by men. “When I went through my undergrad in 1992 as a biology major,  we were pretty split between male and females, but we had a lot overlap with engineers, and there weren’t a lot of women who chose it as a career path,” Hager says. “I definitely see that trend changing, though—there are more people driving women in that direction.”

And initial sparks of interest are being ignited much earlier on in academic paths, which could be key in growing the industry workforce. “It’s not just in college, but at the middle and high school levels, we’re seeing more programs—robotics, engineering, forensic science—specifically created to encourage kids to consider engineering and science career paths before they get to college,” Hager adds. “These are options we never had growing up, and I think that’s going to be huge. We’re in [an engineering] lag right now, but in 15 years, it’s going to have had a huge impact.” 

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine