The Rise of the Paraprofessional

Nov. 25, 2003

The loud drumbeat about today's tough labor market often drowns out one fact: the need for skilled technologists, both chemical-based laboratory technicians and process technologists, is growing faster than the available pool of talent. Pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical manufacturing companies are having a hard time hiring and retaining the skilled staff that they need to turn out new products and keep their plants and operations running.

"The pharmaceutical industry tends to be a bit parochial about hiring and training,"says Sam Stevenson, principal investigator, ChemTech Links at the American Chemical Society (ACS). Because pharmaceutical companies are so dependent on trade secrets, each firm's training tends to reflect its own technology and culture, he says.

For another thing, many pharmaceutical companies don't typically hire at the two-year Associates degree level, preferring instead to recruit B.S. or advanced degree graduates for technician's work, in the belief that it elevates those functions. "It's become something of a sacred cow,"" Stevenson says.

In most cases, though, the practice becomes a lose-lose proposition: new hires feel underemployed and long for the positions that some of their classmates landed, bolting for graduate school or greener pastures after a year or two. Companies, meanwhile, must scramble to find and train replacements while losing out on ambitious workers with practical skills.

In some cases, it's not elitism but a lack of skilled entry-level applicants that is forcing companies to hire overskilled workers. A survey of biopharmaceutical companies conducted last year in California found that 68% were hiring B.S. and M.S.-degreed people for entry-level positions because local community colleges and high-schools weren't graduating people with the necessary skills.

In fact, respondents said only 10 to 20% of the high-school graduates applying for manufacturing jobs had the math, science and computer skills required. At the same time, human resources directors predicted a greater need for workers tied into the manufacturing process---ideally, skilled technicians with two years or more of higher education and production experience.

More pharmaceutical companies are taking proactive steps to help shape training for tomorrow's paraprofessionals. A growing number of biopharmaceutical companies are working closely with Bio-Link, the Advanced Technology Education Center for Biotechnology ( The program's goal is to improve and expand training to prepare skilled paraprofessionals for work in the biotechnology sector. At the same time, ACS is refining its gap analysis of needs vs. skills, to update standards that can be used to strengthen curricula for chemistry-based pharmaceutical technicians.

The need for process technicians, paraprofessionals who would work with chemical engineers on plant operation, scaleup and instrumentation, is also growing in the pharmaceuticals and biotech areas. The Center for the Advancement of Process Technology (CAPT; has played a key role in developing standards for chemical process operators.Now, CAPT is starting to look more closely into pharmaceuticals, to define the skill sets that will be needed for process technicians who wish to specialize in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Separate from the work underway at ACS and Bio-Link, CAPT's project will focus on the operating plant level.

Two-year degree programs promise to solve the skills shortage that exists today, and to save the money that many drug companies now spend on hiring and training. With industry's involvement, Bio-Link, ACS and CAPT will do much to articulate and advance opportunities for two-year degree-holders in pharmaceutical manufacturing. And, as it evolves, the field doesn't look too bad, either. Today's technician enjoys a varied work experience, works as part of a global team, and earns over $60,000/year.

Young people are clearly turned off by manufacturing, even though they usually don't know what it's all about. It will be up to you to convince them just how interesting pharmaceutical manufacturing can be.