BioForward CEO discusses state’s workforce shortage

The COVID-19 pandemic put the spotlight on Wisconsin’s biohealth industry as companies came together to play a key role in fighting the disease.

Lisa Johnson is CEO of BioForward Wisconsin, which represents the state’s biohealth cluster of more than 220 member organizations. In an interview this week with, she talked about the state of the industry just a year after the pandemic started. 

Biohealth spans between biosciences and health, encompassing research institutions, companies in health research, therapeutics, diagnostics, devices and digital health, as well as the state’s health care systems. During the pandemic, companies made personal protective equipment and testing kits, developed therapeutics and ran clinical trials. 

“Having that broad a spectrum of sectors within a state is very unusual,” said Johnson. “You don’t see really that huge spectrum of power that we have sitting in Wisconsin.” 

The industry continues to grow; the latest snapshot from BioForward shows biohealth accounts for over 46,000 jobs in the state and has a 2.5 multiplier effect as it requires manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure and jobs. The industry has a $29 billion economic impact on the state, Johnson said. 

With the COVID-19 vaccine making its way into the arms of Wisconsinites, the hard work and success of the state’s biohealth industry is on full display like never before. But the pandemic has also brought out the most significant challenge facing the industry: workforce. 

“We continue to need talent here,” Johnson said. “We need to attract and certainly retain what we have.”

BioForward has been investing in a national social media campaign for almost two years stressing affordability, and quality education and health care people can find in Wisconsin. It also pushes equality, diversity and inclusion efforts that industry leaders have implemented. 

“Talent is looking for diversity. And that spans all kinds, whether it’s female and male versus our skin color versus age, there’s all kinds of diversity that we need to start marketing and doing more and BioForward itself as an association is looking at what more can we do then to enhance that,” Johnson said.   

COVID-19 also brought collaboration to the biohealth space.

Johnson said connections between companies and institutions just didn’t happen before. But when the pandemic hit, entities had to do everything they could to fight the disease. On an international, national and local stage, major competitors came together, which has boded well for everyone, including the biohealth industry.  

“For just us in the biohealth industry, all we’re seeing now is expansions,” Johnson said.

“That’s why we as an association have to keep up with that. We need to help them as much as we can to get messaging out there … We have to do as much as possible so that they can continue to grow here,” she said. 

-By Stephanie Hoff