By Dan Schell, Editorial Director, Life Science Leader
November 1, 2022
In 2021, when every industry was struggling to find and hire suitable applicants for a multitude of jobs, MassBioEd decided its solution would be to launch a Life Science Apprenticeship Program. Not only would the program help solve the dearth of applicants to the Massachusetts biopharma industry, it would also help boost diversification of that workforce, specifically in the entry-level positions of clinical trial associate (CTA) and biomanufacturing technician apprentice (BTA).
For this article, we wanted to check in with some of the first cohort’s 30 participants about their experiences thus far. It should be noted that once a person is chosen for a cohort, the training is free, and the apprentice receives a monthly stipend while in class, along with wages and benefits during the on-the-job training. For CTAs, training consists of 12 weeks of virtual classes with a live instructor provided by the Association for Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP). The BTA program is 16weeks long and includes eight weeks of MassBioEd online classes followed by eight weeks of in-person lab training in masks/PPE. Technical training is provided by Northeastern University in Burlington, MA, or Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA. In 2022, the program boasted 17 employer partners including Big Pharmas such as Pfizer, Takeda, and BMS.
The cohort participants we spoke with were:
Apprentice program: CTA
Employer partner: Apellis Pharmaceuticals
Apprentice program: CTA
Employer partner: Covis Pharma
Apprentice program: BTA
Employer partner: Pfizer
Apprentice program: CTA
Employer partner: Replimune
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR PARTICULAR APPRENTICE PROGRAM? DID YOU HAVE PRIOR EXPERIENCE?
Pamella DaSilva: I did not have any previous experience, but I thought that with my experience in HR and admin work, it would be a good fit for me.
Heather Fernald: After doing some research and talking with my sister, who is in the biotech field, I realized the CTA track was overwhelmingly the right path for me. My experience with customer service and my high attention to detail — while also recognizing “the big picture” — were just the skills needed for this entry-level position. I also was really interested in the upward mobility available on the clinical operations side of things.
Oscar Travis: Besides a partial undergraduate degree in biotechnology — which didn’t lend much to the experience I have now — I had no prior experience. I chose the path for two reasons, one general and one specific. Generally, I’ve always deeply enjoyed the scientific process behind what many people might take for granted. While many of us take a medication, not everyone stops to question what kind of legwork goes into these products. The amount of man-hours, coordination, and documentation that goes into making something as simple and ubiquitous as Tylenol is a testament to the well-oiled machine of manufacturing. Specifically, my girlfriend lives with Crohn’s disease, and I know that the biologics that I’m working on can help improve the quality of life for people like her.
Godwin Uka: A high school friend of mine who is a CRA came to Massachusetts to interview for a job and told me about the clinical research field. I had no previous experience, though.
FOR YOU, WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF THE WHOLE TRAINING EXPERIENCE?
Pamella DaSilva: The most difficult was grasping the information that was given — it was a lot. I thought I wasn’t going to make it!
Heather Fernald: The most difficult part, I feel, is remembering that I am an apprentice, and I am learning totally new tasks, and I shouldn’t expect to automatically have the abilities of others who have been in the field for years.
Oscar Travis: With the amount of work that I was doing outside of the training process, I think that the most difficult part wasn’t necessarily the training but the managing of priorities between my life at that time and the life I was trying to work toward.
Godwin Uka: The training process was well organized, and I cannot pinpoint any difficult part during the training process.
WHICH PART OF THE APPRENTICESHIP DID YOU ENJOY THE MOST AND WHY?
Pamella DaSilva: I enjoyed being able to see how my coworkers also had tough times and sometimes needed help. It was good to have them around to support — and to help them, too!
Heather Fernald: I love all of the new tasks and information I am learning constantly. My brain is getting a lot of exercise! I am taking a project management course right now that is giving me the skills and view into what my career future could hold.
Oscar Travis: The program was broken up into two portions, with an initial online learning portion between the beginning of June and the end of July, and an in-person lab portion from the beginning of August running to the end of October. While both parts of the program were really enjoyable, it was only because both involved working with amazing instructors. Being able to work with an array of lab managers, skilled college professors, and industry leaders really made the program that much more enriching.
Godwin Uka: The most enjoyable part was when I started at my job placement at Replimune and had to apply the knowledge imparted to me by MassBioEd.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT THE BIOPHARMA INDUSTRY ONCE YOU STARTED WORKING WITHIN IT?
Pamella DaSilva: It is surprising that I am doing so much more than what I learned in the program. Actually, a lot of what I am doing was not taught in the program. I’m thankful that my company already trusts me enough to do the work I’m doing.
Heather Fernald: It is fun and exciting, which is something I never thought I’d say about science — especially back when I was in high school! Also, I have heard negative comments about the pharma industry from the news and online outlets in the past, but from what I see, there seems to be a real commitment to the well-being and safety of people that are in need of help and support.
Oscar Travis: Not that I thought that working in an environment like this would be unsafe, but the safety culture of my work is engrained in everything that I do, and everyone from top to bottom takes it very seriously.
Godwin Uka: Getting to know the importance of biopharma in our day-to-day activities was phenomenal. Also, at Replimune, where I work, the support structure/systems have been fantastic. The staff from various departments is willing to go above and beyond to assist new staff like me, and that made working in the industry much more interesting — and fun — for me as I continue to learn more and explore.
For more information, check out “Nonprofit Org Sees A New Way To Train CTA Talent” at ClinicalLeader.com.