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Aug 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 14)

Strengthening the Biotechnician Workforce

National Science Foundation Conference Focuses on Training and Education Issues

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently sponsored a conference “Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs,” to address the U.S. bioindustry’s requirements for laboratory and manufacturing technicians over the next five years.

    According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, science technicians held approximately 267,000 jobs in the U.S. in 2006. Biological technicians acounted for 30% of these jobs.

    The Labor Dept. predicts that overall employment of science technicians is expected to grow 12% during the 2006–2016 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of biological technicians, however, should increase faster than the average, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to about 91,000 by 2016.

    Fifty conferees from higher education, secondary education, industry, government, and professional organizations met in Scottsdale, AZ, to explore ideas on how to best educate technicians for the evolving biotechnology industry.

    “The key factor that led NSF/AACC to hold this conference was the maturation of the bioindustry and the expansion of the bioeconomy into all areas of our lives,” explained Sonia Wallman, Ph.D., director of the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative in Portsmouth, NH, and a member of the conference-steering committee.

    “Bioproducts such as biopharmaceuticals, replacement organs, stem cells, biofuels, bioplastics, and enzymes are made through the work of technicians at biomanufacturing facilities around the nation. I recently read an article that noted that biotechnicians will be the middle class of the 21st century.”

    The goal of the conference was to brainstorm suggestions for structuring and supporting biotechnician education in the healthcare, medical, manufacturing, environmental, food, and agricultural sectors of the industry. Educating a technical workforce for emerging disciplines such as BioMEMS, nanotechnology, and pharmacogenomics also received considerable attention from conference attendees.

    “Industry participants delineated employers’ needs that span degree offerings from high school, community college, and four-year institutions,” said V. Celeste Carter, Ph.D., program director of division of undergraduate education at the NSF and another steering-committee member.

    “Discussions focused on expectations for entry-level technicians and on how community colleges can educate both traditional students, who must acquire a solid background for entry-level positions, and also post-baccalaureate students, who may have advanced degrees in science but lack the laboratory skills they need to gain employment in the biotechnology industry.”

  • Recommendations

    The conferees put together a series of recommendations based on the need for students to develop a wide range of technical skills, understand key biotech applications, and have a solid appreciation for the business aspects of biotech R&D and manufacturing as well as the science.

    For example, biotech studies should include core curriculum courses that transfer and articulate from high school to two-year and four-year degree programs. The group also agreed that it made sense to introduce emerging technologies into basic biotech courses and to redesign the standard microbiology and biology curriculum to include applications in industrial and environmental biotechnology.

    A strong theoretical understanding of the entire manufacturing operation, encompassing upstream and downstream processes, should be imparted to the student interested in bioproduction, maintained several meeting attendees. Attention should also be given to improving students’ written and verbal communication skills along with helping them realize the importance of teamwork and time management, stressed a number of others.

    The conferees recommended that biotech programs provide industry externships for faculty, secondary school teachers, and guidance counselors to expand their industry experience. Multidisciplinary programs for cross-training college faculty and students should also be encouraged (e.g., how microelectronics relates to emerging diagnostic technologies, and material sciences to emerging biofuels).

    The American Association of Community Colleges plans to publish and disseminate the final report with all the recommendations by the end of the summer.

    For more information on the Scottsdale conference or on topics and recommendations discussed at the meeting, contact one of the NSF’s program directors: V. Celeste Carter, Ph.D. (Email:vccarter@nsf.gov; Phone: (703) 292-4634), or Duncan McBride (Email:dmcbride@nsf.gov; Phone: (703) 292-4630).


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