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Gov. Charlie Baker talks to life sciences intern Pamela Tusiime (back to camera) and Sunny Schwartz, the CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, at Arranta Bio in Watertown. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Workers develop skills, companies find employees

DURING THIS EXCITING time of growth for biotech and the life sciences industry in Massachusetts, the future of this industry depends on growing the pool of trained, qualified workers. Currently, the biotech industry employs approximately 90,000 individuals in Massachusetts, and we expect – at minimum –  an additional 20,000 jobs to be created over the next four years, with expected total employment of 109,000 by the end of 2024. As life sciences companies, including vaccine producers, ramp up their production and physical presence in Massachusetts, it has become harder to recruit new skilled workers in the state. The supply of qualified workers is not keeping up with the demand for talent.

At the same time as this growing demand, unemployed and underemployed individuals struggle to find jobs. Individuals who could succeed in this industry remain unaware of the opportunities, do not have the traditional four-year college education that is often considered a requirement, or do not fit the profile of candidates typically recruited.

Particularly now, in the wake of COVID-19, there are thousands of individuals in Massachusetts ready and willing to enter new professions but lacking industry-related skills. In addition, although industry executives often point to a goal of increasing diversity among their workforce, there remains a persistent lack of diversity in the life sciences.

We can address both challenges by creating alternative pathways into the life sciences industry. Apprenticeships are one exciting alternative that can prepare individuals with transferable skills for many middle skill positions in the industry and provide a point of entry for those outside of the traditional educational pathway. Some of the fastest growing careers today require more than a high school diploma, but not necessarily a four-year college degree. Apprenticeships can be built to match both the needs of employers seeking to fill positions and the needs of people looking for opportunities to quickly gain the skills for meaningful and well-paying careers.

Apprenticeships are a centuries-old model predominately used in the trade industries in the US; however, in Europe and other parts of the world apprenticeships are an established career pathway into many white-collar careers. The focus is on practical skills and on-the-job training, making training accessible to a broader set of learning styles. They also teach critical thinking skills and the essential soft skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. Apprentices are paid while they learn on the job, opening the pathway to individuals who cannot afford to sacrifice employment for education. Because of this accessibility, apprenticeships are a great way to increase diversity in the local workforce.

Working with industry leaders to understand workforce needs, training requirements, and employer interest, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd) has designed a Life Sciences Apprenticeship Program that offers an alternative entry into the life sciences industry. The curriculum has been designed in partnership with industry professionals who also serve as managers and mentors to the apprentices.

MassBioEd’s Life Sciences Apprenticeship Program is one of the first such apprenticeships in the country. The program represents an entirely new approach to providing opportunities for diverse unemployed and underemployed individuals to join one of Massachusetts’ fastest growing industries in rewarding, family-sustaining jobs that have strong career paths. The program is funded through a combination of private and public grants and fees from participating employer partners.

This program requires a high school diploma or equivalent for entry along with the attitude and aptitude for the jobs rather than a traditional college degree. The program provides technical education, on-the-job paid training, and mentorship. All apprentices receive three to six months of education and training before being placed in a one-year, full-time, paid apprenticeship at participating companies. There is no cost to the apprentices, and our employer partners provide them with a stipend to cover living expenses during the educational period.

This support and approach makes the program accessible to all populations and increases participants’ likelihood of completing the program. When training is complete, apprentices are ready to move into full-time, permanent employment in the life sciences industry.

The program currently has two tracks, purposefully chosen in response to high employer demand: one for biomanufacturing technicians and one for clinical trial associates. The technicians help produce and deliver biological products and therapies to patients while the clinical trial associates work in pharmaceutical companies to administer clinical trials of novel drugs, devices, and therapies. Both tracks share the same structural model.

MassBioEd recruits potential apprentices, prioritizing recruitment from historically under-represented communities, including people of color, those without traditional college degrees, and military veterans. When a group of potential candidates is identified, employer partners are invited to participate in the interview process and select those individuals they intend to take on as apprentices. Each apprentice has a placement identified prior to acceptance into the program. Both tracks have been approved and registered as apprenticeships by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Life Sciences Apprenticeship Program is a collaborative effort. Local companies and the state of Massachusetts are joining forces with MassBioEd to expand career opportunities for Massachusetts residents. Companies that participate in the apprenticeship program gain access to a pool of work-ready candidates with skills perfectly matched to their needs. Individual apprentices have opportunities for new careers at sustainable wages. MassBioEd apprenticeships have been designed in close partnership with leading life science employers, universities, and professional associations to be scalable across the industry and across the country.

It is an innovative model that we expect to grow exponentially, enrolling several hundreds of individuals over the next few years.

By thinking outside the box, these new apprenticeships have been created to bridge the gap between workforce demands and a diversity of job seekers. We hope these will be the first of many programs designed to expand opportunities in the life sciences.

Meet the Author: Sunny Schwartz, Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation

Sunny Schwartz is the CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit organization. MassBioEd’s mission is to build a strong, diverse life sciences workforce in the region through educational programming. Learn more:

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