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Biotechnology - a science-driven endeavor powered by skill

Posted December 18, 2020 6:49 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2020 10:03 a.m. EST

Biotechnology is a life science with available job opportunities and career paths for workers with all sorts of skills, education and backgrounds. (Photo Courtesy of Novozymes)

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

When broken down, the word "biotechnology" can be separated into two parts: bio, which means life, and technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for useful purposes. Therefore, biotechnology is the use of living things to help develop or make products and part of the broader life sciences sector.

As Bill Bullock, senior vice president of economic development and statewide operations at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, put it, "Biotech is harnessing the power of biology." NCBiotech is an economic development organization dedicated to transforming companies, technologies and careers to help grow the state's life sciences ecosystem.

"Biotechnology is the use of biological processes to make useful products — like medicine for example," added John Balchunas. Balchunas is the workforce director for the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals and the assistant director of Professional Development Programs at the Biomanufacturing Training & Education Center, both based at North Carolina State University.

"Biopharmaceuticals, which fall under the biotech umbrella, use the biotechnology toolbox to develop therapies such as vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and potentially-curative medical treatments in emerging modalities such as cell and gene therapy," continued Balchunas. "But there is a whole realm of industrial biotechnology that goes beyond just biopharma."

North Carolina has one of the largest life sciences sectors in the country and the Triangle has a particularly robust biopharma presence. Companies like Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly all have enterprises here.

The life sciences sector employs more than 66,000 North Carolinians and Balchunas emphasized you don't have to be a scientist to work in biotech.

"Everybody is familiar with the image of a white lab-coat scientist or lab technician working in biotech, but many don't realize how truly advanced the jobs in manufacturing have become," said Balchunas. "As a result, the industry is growing and evolving so fast that it is looking for an increasingly diverse talent base."

"The life sciences sector has grown not only in terms of technological application, but also in terms of innovation and manufacturing. A lot of the products that are getting made have really diversified the skill sets needed," said Bullock.

While chemical engineers and molecular biologists are certainly needed in life sciences, there is also a growing demand for those skilled in data and computer science, maintenance and skilled labor, and more. As Balchunas put it, "there's a breadth of career opportunities" that cater to all walks of life.

Biopharma companies are regularly looking for:

  • Process Technicians typically work in a pharmaceutical manufacturing clean-room environment, operating and monitoring equipment and machinery and documenting results in strict adherence to protocols.
  • Maintenance and/or Instrumentation Technicians conduct preventive maintenance and corrective repair of buildings, industrial systems, and equipment such as bioreactors, autoclaves and testing devices.
  • Quality Assurance Associates are responsible for reviewing and approving documentation involving all aspects of the production process, such as batch records assuring adherence to current good manufacturing practice standards, and often involving oversight of training records and company quality metrics to meet corporate standards as well as expectations from government regulatory bodies.
  • Quality Control Associates typically work in a lab, testing the products of pharmaceutical manufacturing processes to ensure they meet established criteria, so the final product is safe to release for sale or distribution.
  • Process Development Associates/Scientists plan, direct, execute and document the scientific activities needed to develop processes used in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products.
  • Process Engineers plan, design, install and maintain equipment and processes for manufacturing and testing pharmaceutical products, including cost estimations, ensuring everything runs safely and efficiently and meets regulatory standards.

It's important to note, depending on the role, career options are available to those with different levels of education, skills and backgrounds. Whether you're a high school student who is interested in a biopharma career or a graduate student studying microbiology, there's a job in biotech that's suited for your unique abilities. Life sciences jobs are also viable options for displaced workers or those who are considering a career change.

"Regardless of what your background is, there is a place for you in biotech," said Balchunas. "The industry is really looking for people who come from multi-disciplinary backgrounds — people who have different perspectives. The key is identifying your transferable skills and finding where you would fit in best."

However, there are some characteristics biopharma manufacturing companies are consistently looking for, namely the ability to follow directions and attention to detail. Balchunas said people who are used to working in corporate or professional settings, former military personnel, and shift workers often find success in biotech careers.

Bullock said he got into biotech because he knew there would always be people, and people will always get sick. While this may sound pessimistic — his point of view, in reality, was a positive one. Bullock knew that where there were problems, there would be a need for problem solvers.

"I knew there would always be a need for people to continue developing innovative ways to deal with human health, animal health, and plant agriculture," said Bullock. "That's really what biotech is — it's evolving technology that we learn more about and then apply to the planet's problems. This, implicitly, makes it a stable career choice — and a well-paying one."

Biopharma jobs pay between $50K and $60K to start, with potential average earnings of $100K. Additionally, according to an industry study, North Carolina anticipates adding 5,000 biotech jobs over the next five years, in addition to the 3,000 jobs announced in 2020.

Not only is there no shortage of opportunity and career stability, but biopharma jobs, to many, are meaningful ones.

"In this day and age, just having a job isn't enough. People want jobs that are rewarding and meaningful," said Balchunas. "When it comes to things like gene therapy and other technologies that are taking off — you're talking about curative therapies and developing products that will not just treat a disease, but get rid of it. When I talk to people who are working in the industry, most of them are very passionate about why they're in it and it's not for the money. It's for the fact that they're actually making a difference."

Bullock stressed, above all else, companies are really looking for hardworking people.

"I've spent a lot of time talking to the companies from a needs perspective and what they need in terms of talent. I think what we hear the most is that they need people, period," said Balchunas. "Companies realize the industry is growing and they want to attract more people to these jobs so that there isn't a deficit down the road."

Photo Courtesy of Novozymes

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

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