From Landmen to Medical Lab Technicians – How cross-training industry professionals builds companies and Oklahoma’s workforce
Oklahoma’s state tagline is, “Labor Omnia Vincit.”
Labor conquers all things. Or in other words, innovation overcomes obstacles.
Oklahoma’s workforce is made up of more than 1.5 million hardworking people. From blue color to white color workers, our state takes pride in our work, our legacy, and our innovative nature. And when times get hard, Oklahomans always come up with new ways to persevere and continue to grow, against any odds.
2020 was a year full of adversity. It was adversity the world felt, and all were affected. In Oklahoma, not only was the state dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but it was also dealing with a struggling energy economy. The oil & gas sector was down, and people were finding themselves out of work. But despite that, new companies were still forming, and new jobs were being created, fueling one of our ever-growing workforces – the biotech industry.
Wheeler Labs, co-founded in 2020 by Dr. Jesse McCool and Mr. Christian Kanady of Echo Investment Capital, was established to help broaden access to accurate, in vitro diagnostics for Oklahomans during the peak of the pandemic. They launched the first at-home saliva test kit in Oklahoma in partnership with Phosphorus in New York City. Wheeler’s test was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Their test reached thousands of Oklahomans and featured an easy-to-use, at-home saliva collection process coupled with rapid PCR testing in their CLIA-certified laboratory located in the OKC Innovation District.
The company’s namesake, “Wheeler No. 1”, was the first oil well drilled in the Drumright-Cushing Oil Field in 1912, giving rise to a new industrial age in our state. Like a baton in a long relay race, we find it quite interesting to have learn that several critical hand-offs between energy and bioteh helped to get Wheeler Labs off the ground.
First, Wheeler is backed by Echo Investment Capital, who also founded Echo Energy, Oklahoma’s 3rd largest minerals and royalties firm in the state. So access to early capital came from the oil & gas sector. Second, many of Wheeler’s employees came from the oil & gas sector. Wheeler’s rapid call-to-action did not allow for typical recruiting timelines so they needed to leverage a deep workforce network already established by Echo wherever possible to accelerate the scaling of their operations. What Wheeler Bio did next was extremely innovative; they matched up medical lab technicians (1-on-1) (professionals in the in vitro diagnostics sector) with oil & gas professionals to carefully cross-train personnel to be medical lab technicians.
“What it came down to was that cross-training suitable candidates (oil and gas professionals with certain transferrable skills) in our energy network was faster than waiting for the normal recruiting process to produce qualified candidates from outside the region” McCool said. “Our goal was to augment our core medical technician workforce with a team of smart, capable former oil & gas professionals by providing innovative classroom and hands-on training.”
After a four week training program and proficiency testing, suitable candidates – former landmen, GIS and geologists- were qualified, per stringent CLIA regulations – to work in a high-complexity molecular diagnostics laboratory performing activities such as sample accessioning, RNA extractions, PCR amplification, bioinformatics and reporting. They also put several former oil professionals to work in their customer services department, business development, logistics and kit manufacturing. In total, about ten former energy sector professionals were cross-trained on 45 different SOPs in the Wheeler quality system.
“It was a rewarding experience for me to have had the chance to put people back to work,” McCool said. “On top of that, it was satisfying to know that Wheeler was giving back to both local and national communities by providing a useful testing service helping to keep people safe and informed.” Because their tests were at-home based and sold on-line and through large national distributors, they helped thousands of people across the country.
The re-training of professionals in cross-industry collaboration efforts is unique to markets like Oklahoma City. According to McCool, cross-training professional doesn’t happen as much in other biotech markets with high concentrations of companies in small geographical spaces, like Boston.
“Coastal cities like Boston already enjoy a critical mass of qualified candidates in the biotech ecosystem” McCool said. “Pharmaceuticals and biotech companies alike don’t generally have to go outside of their own zip code to recruit. Those cities will have 200 applicants for a single job opening, and 95% of those applicants are well qualified.”
However, for Oklahoma City employers to attract talent for new sectors, employers need to be creative and innovative with respect to recruiting. Employers should develop search criteria that bias suitability, teachability, and transferability over on-paper qualifications.
“Employers in growth sectors in cities like OKC should be adopting new approaches to recruiting,” McCool says. Instead of recruiting professionals who are strictly “qualified” for a job, employers need to recruit candidates who are “suitable” for a job and willing to learn. These are two different approaches entirely.”
“It’s recruiting with the knowledge that there isn’t a critical mass of people available with the exact work training history that may be required. Instead, it’s recruiting while assessing transferable skills. With a heavier emphasis on learning abilities and strong training programs, we can build our base workforce in manufacturing from the local talent pool that’s already here.”
Oklahoma City is built for innovation. The re-training of oil & gas engineers for the biotech industry is a prime example of cross-industry collaboration and the efforts that will continue to put our state on the map. The assets and organizations available to student and professionals in Oklahoma do excellent work to arm future talent with the transferable skills and training needed to be better situated as candidates in multiple industries.
Cross-industry training is scalable and transferable to a plethora of industries. Oklahoma has the chance to be a leader in seeing this trend continue across the country as it becomes necessary for the American workforce. In simple terms, it seems to come down to being willing to train, being willing to learn and working hard, which once again leads us back to, “Labor Omnia Vincit.”
To learn more about Wheeler Bio, visit ww.wheelerbio.com
Special thanks to Jesse McCool, Co-Founder & CEO of Wheeler Bio, for his time and help with this article.