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Just across the Schuylkill River from downtown Philadelphia, an eight-story, all-glass tower rises above the gothic architecture and spacious quads of University City. Inside, faculty-mentors work together with life sciences experts to deploy training programs that teach skillsets for the ever-evolving needs of industry.
Companies are matched with trainees to engage in hands-on, lab-based work along with class-based instruction designed for a mix of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. In many cases, students come from less traditional paths, but that’s partially the point—new perspectives breed new answers to new problems.
Welcome to the Wistar Institute, home to a multifaceted series of bioscience training programs built alongside private industry to prepare the next generation of workers in a profession with growing needs for STEM talent.
“Wistar does a great job of training new talent from community colleges and institutions that serve underrepresented communities, including HBCUs like Cheyney University,” says Sharon Willis, PhD, co-founder and VP of Sales & Customer Relations for one of the city’s early biotech firms, Integral Molecular. “Students learn skills in the classroom and lab, and then spend time in the summer with employers around the region.
“Local biotech and pharma benefit greatly from the new pool of employees coming out of these programs. This is really helping to fill the great need for lab-based jobs in the area.”
It is a welcome solution to meet bioscience companies’ increasing needs. One report from April 2022 suggests the industry must hire 100,000 professionals in the next few years to meet demand. Another, by TEConomy Partners from 2021, shows occupational needs are diverse across areas like IT, engineering, and production, making the issue broad-based. And Pew Research Center says there’s a strong underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM workforce.
Solving these talent issues requires new thinking about how to bring underrepresented populations into the profession. Wistar’s newest initiative, the Biomedical Technician Training Program: Aseptic Manufacturing, will create opportunities for Philadelphians with at least a high school equivalency and for residents from disadvantaged communities. The 22-week paid program will include class- and lab-based training that finishes with a 10-week externship at late-stage biotech company Iovance Biotherapeutics.
“What we’re hoping to do is to become an exemplar of how you can do workforce development equitably, inclusively, collaboratively, in a way that helps Philadelphians connect to high-quality jobs and supports the cell and gene therapy industry,” says Cait Garozzo, Executive Director at the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, one of the partners involved.
To achieve similar goals, some companies like gene therapy pioneer Spark Therapeutics have looked to graduating students. It launched its Early in Career Program in March 2022 and sourced 14 hires from Greater Philadelphia’s local universities, like Drexel, and Temple, with varying degrees such as BS, MS, PhD, and JD.
“One of our primary goals is to create a diverse talent pipeline for the future, and we believe connecting with ‘early in career’ talent helps us achieve that goal,” says Jamie Schmid, Head of Talent Acquisition for Spark, which is building a $575M state-of-the art gene therapy innovation center in University City. “We also hope to retain top talent who are excited about returning to Spark as full-time employees in the long term.”
Initiatives like these can also help engage and retain existing employees along the way.
“Internships and apprenticeships have had a positive impact on our own employee community,” says Integral Molecular’ s Willis. “It’s often a way of giving some of our junior staff opportunities to lead in a way that’s rewarding and helps with their own personal growth.”
It is through these initiatives, she explains, that “Integral Molecular and companies like ours have been intentional about spreading the success within the community we have chosen to call home.”
Interested in discovering how Greater Philadelphia can help fuel your company’s growth? Contact our team for more inform ation about the region’s talent pool, and workforce initiatives and how to get plugged in. selectgreaterphl.com