Biotechnology is a broad sector that includes companies that use science to develop products that save or improve lives or the environment. These companies can operate in the agricultural, pharmaceutical, medical device and equipment, or distribution arena.
Providing the workforce the industry needs to stay and thrive in the state begins with California’s community colleges.
“We need to know what criteria the industry is looking for. And for that reason, we bring all stakeholders together – representatives from industry, workforce investment boards, trade associations, and the colleges – to help build our training programs and get our students into the workforce,” says Terri Quenzer, PhD, executive director of the Bioscience Workforce Development Hub, hosted at MiraCosta College.
“We strive for life science companies to recognize the value of our community colleges,” Quenzer adds. “A lot of companies don’t realize that our programs have PhD level faculty, many that came from industry. Our colleges have state-of-the-art facilities and equipment and provide students with the skills that industry wants.”
Often, students graduating from a science program at a four-year college don’t have the same skills-based training, and come to community college post-graduation for that training so they can get their first industry job.
Los Angeles Mission College is one of the colleges at the top of Quenzer’s list, and she cites their strong program under the leadership of Chander Arora, PhD. The school’s biotechnology program, now in its fifth year, has just received a second large grant from the National Science Foundation.
At LA Mission, students earn their first certificate in a stackable program – the lab technician certification. Although completion takes just a semester, this certification ensures that they know basic lab skills, equipment and protocols, such as biosafety, and is enough for them to secure an entry-level job.
“These are hands-on skills common to any biotech facility, and we contextualize them with soft skills in project-based learning,” says Dr. Arora, whose background in both teaching and the healthcare industry makes her uniquely qualified to know the basic skills that are essential in a well-run lab. ‘'I am honored to have the support of a dream team, from our department to President Ornelas, at this institution,” she added.
One recent student project tested immunoglobulin in the saliva of people before and after receiving the Covid vaccine. Students applied proper lab techniques to measure, calculate, and plot the data to present their findings.
“It’s contextualized training,” says Dr. Arora. “They’re learning to work in teams, to think critically, manage their time, and to take the lead on projects.”
After completing the initial certification, students at LA Mission can earn additional biotech certifications or go on to earn an associate degree, which is the minimum students would need to advance. The stackable certificate program helps students earn the associate degree quickly, and articulation agreements with several four-year colleges make it easy to transfer credits towards a bachelor’s degree.
Over the last few years, students have seen the biotech industry mushroom, particularly with the development and manufacturing of vaccines. So great is the need for qualified technicians that many students have jobs waiting for them when they complete the program.
“When a company sees that you’ve trained at LA Mission, it carries weight,” says Carlos Maldonado, a recent graduate now working at Cedars-Sinai. The program “pretty much marries coursework to what the industry wants. We were working with centrifuges, doing gram staining, and PCR testing. Dr. Arora stressed organization, and we had the aseptic technique down. When I finished with the lab certification program, I had several offers, and Dr. Arora helped with resume building, interview prep, and introductions to guest speakers.”
Maldonado worked for a time at Thermo Fisher, then accepted a job at Cedars-Sinai. He has since earned his associate degree, and is currently a quality control assistant in their bio manufacturing center lab.
Biomanufacturing and quality control are areas of high need, and some companies even offer sign-on bonuses for entry-level positions. These lead to well-paying, dignified career path jobs that start at a minimum of $19 an hour, plus benefits, says Dr. Arora. The placement rate at the end of each semester is at least 90%.
“I love what I do and plan to go on for a bachelor’s degree,” which Cedars-Sinai will pay for, Maldonado says.
LA Mission is in the process of developing a bachelor’s degree program in biotechnology, the first community college in the Los Angeles area to do so.