Industry expectations for technician-level workers: The U. S. bioscience industry skill standards project and identification of skill sets for technicians in pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, and clinical laboratories


  • A. Stephen Dahms,

    Corresponding author
    1. California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), San Diego, California 92182-1230
    • California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), San Diego, California 92182-1230
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  • Judith A. Leff

    1. Education Development Center, Newton, Massachusetts 02458
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This is the seventh in a series of articles on the nature of biotechnology and its cognate industries. The articles specifically target education and training needs and trends in the global industry. The series is designed to facilitate the better understanding of the industry by the academic educational and research training sector, as well as to clarify the consequent educational, discovery research-, applied research-, and developmental research-training needs of future employees. The articles will address aspects of biotechnology workforce creation and training in countries around the world. This article addresses important industry-generated and industry-validated skill sets for technician-level positions in the above industries. It also discusses the impacts that these skill standards are having on industry-responsive bachelor of science and higher degree programs.


In the recent past, United States policymakers, employers, and other stakeholders have become increasingly aware of the need to raise the level of academic achievement and work skills of people graduating from education programs and entering the work force. Through United States Congressional action in 1992 and 1993, the United States Skills Standards Projects were conceived and funded by the United States Departments of Education and Labor. The goal of this action was to establish national-level skill standards for entry-level employees in a variety of United States industries. Inherent in this process would be the identification of goals, required technical and general work skill sets, and academic knowledge, as well as benchmarking standards. The voluntary standards were to be established and validated by the industries themselves. Twenty-two industries were targeted, including the bioscience industry-specific project, identified as the Bioscience Industry Skill Standards Project (BISSP).11 The education Development Center was awarded $1.1 million by the United States Department of Education to direct the BISSP, which operated from 1992 to 1996. The BISSP was designed from the beginning to capture the true nature of the work that beginning-level technical specialists do in this complex and skill-intensive industry. The work of the BISSP was carried out by a broadly based collaboration of nearly 1,000 people and 300 organizations, representing all parts of the bioscience industry (technical workers, supervisors, and managers), educators (teachers and administrators), labor, and local and state government. We were the BISSP Director (J. A. L.) and the sole representative of United States universities on the BISSP Technical Advisory Committee (A. S. D.).


The Skills Standards Projects were crafted to identify what people must know and be able to do in order to qualify for beginning- to near-middle-level occupations in various sectors of the nation's economy. The information derived from the projects, generated through a strong collaboration among industry, educators, and labor, would provide a sound starting point for the development of education and training programs. These programs would prepare people for employment, and in some cases career advancement, while helping meet the country's needs for well educated, knowledgeable, and highly skilled workers. It is recognized that industry skill standards by themselves cannot create more jobs that require high skill levels, but their use by both employers and educators can help assure that more qualified people are prepared to enter industry.

After conferring with industry professionals typical job classifications, the BISSP decided to detail the skill and knowledge sets for one technical position, the Bioscience Technical Specialist I, an amalgamation of 19 entry- to mid-level technical occupations that shared similar skill and knowledge requirements. Importantly, from the perspective of United States biotechnology, there is collective agreement that the term “technician” primarily refers to a person holding a high school vocational educational degree, advanced training beyond high school, a two-year community college Associate of Arts degree, or extensive experience en route to but not achieving the baccalaureate. Previous articles in this series have identified the nature of jobs in the biotechnology industry showing that technician positions are identified clearly [1, 2], and it is pointed out that about 14% of the United States biotechnology technical workforce is at the pre-baccalaureate level [3]. Only occasionally, but increasingly rarely, are baccalaureate degree holders referred to as technicians in the United States.

The biosciences skill standards for the Bioscience Technical Specialist I were perceived as being justified from the following three perspectives.

  • Some new employees with four-year university or college degrees in biology or related fields are in fact not prepared for the beginning-level technical jobs they enter.

    Managers often state they use the 4-year degree as a de facto standard, but in some cases, although 4-year college courses provide the theoretical framework, depending upon the extent of undergraduate laboratory experience, undergraduate degree holders can often lack the practical, hands-on experience needed in the workplace. This has led a number of community colleges in the United States, in those areas where appreciable biotechnology industry clusters exist, to form what has become known as “Baccalaureate Retread” training programs. Responses to a BISSP survey of more than 150 corporate bioscience managers indicated that all of the work performed by the Bioscience Technical Specialist I can be learned in a well planned training program during a 2–3-year period, including classroom, laboratory, and work-based experience.

  • Many programs designed to prepare people for specific occupations sometimes fail to do so, because their instructors do not understand what skills and knowledge the occupations require.

    Employers and educators often report that the most effective work preparation programs are those designed with the active participation of industry. As pointed out in previous articles in this series, one of the major problems facing the process of workforce development has been the lack of awareness of industry's needs by the higher educational faculty. The identification of industry-generated and industry-validated skill standards can provide an awakening for well intended but frequently, and understandably so, unaware faculty and advisors. Importantly, as seen below, such skill standards, although centered on individuals without university or college degrees, can influence the nature, direction, and industry responsiveness of 4-year college and university training programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

  • A number of baccalaureate degree holders experience a high degree of dissatisfaction after entering technician level jobs, resulting in high turnover rates.

    In the United States biotechnology industry, this problem has been referred to euphemistically as “The Baccalaureate Retention Problem.” This phenomenon, linked to undergraduate programs producing graduates unprepared to deal with the nuances and demands of the corporate wet bench world, results in higher costs for retraining or replacement. This phenomenon is being responded to by some prescient universities and 4-year colleges by modification of their existing academic offerings. These institutions have produced baccalaureate programs focused on industry as a career, which prepares students to enter industry with their “eyes wide open” regarding the corporate environment, expectations for new employees, applied research and development, team-based approaches, etc.

The Bioscience Skill Standards were published by Education Development Center, Inc. in 1995, under the title Gateway to the Future, Skill Standards for the Bioscience Industry. The book includes descriptions and information about the development process, research data, identified skills, knowledge areas, general work knowledge and behaviors, standards, work-based scenarios using the standards, and recommendations for their use in education and training programs and in industry [4]. Three items from this 88-page report are shown in Figs. 1, 2, 3. They have been located on the CSUPERB web site [5] and now on the Education Development Center web site [6]. These specifications, in particular Fig. 3, have been disseminated widely among United States community colleges, technical education training programs, high schools, and, as seen below, universities and 4-year colleges.

The first goal, to create national skill standards for a range of technical positions in the bioscience industry, has been achieved. These standards have become benchmarks for United States education and training programs that purport to prepare people in general work skills, industry-specific technical skills, knowledge, and behaviors required to qualify for jobs and career opportunities in this high skilled, high growth industry. The skill standards have provided a basis for many of the United States National Science Foundation-supported community college training programs under the Advanced Technology Education program, including Bio-Link (a national center for biotechnology education [7]).

The second goal, to promote acceptance and creative use of the standards by employers, educators, and even unions, has been mostly achieved, but is still in progress. The goal, in particular, is to have the skill standards used to guide employers and human resources support-sector companies that provide benchmarking standards, job descriptions, job content, and labeling of employees in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. A variety of materials are being produced from the BISSP research and skill standards, including kindergarten through 8th grade and high school curriculum development, post-secondary (university and college) curriculum development, work-based learning, workplace mentor development, career counselor training, assessment and certification, and creation of articulation agreements. We hope to address some of these materials as related to the special interests of bachelor of science and higher degree programs.


There have been interesting, important, and unanticipated impacts of the BISSP on a number of these institutions beyond the originally targeted community college and high school technical educational levels, these being the major producers of technicians for the biotechnology industry in the United States. Impacts have occurred at 4-year colleges and universities, both inside and outside of the United States regional mature biotechnology industry clusters. Thousands of copies of Fig. 3 and other relevant information have been distributed to faculty and departments at these institutions. These have been used to provide faculty a better understanding of the factors needed to prepare students to function well in the corporate wet bench basic research, applied research, development, and even production arenas. Currently, about 45% of the technical staff in bioscience manufacturing positions in the United States are baccalaureate or higher; correspondingly, about 65% of the technical staff in pilot plant settings are baccalaureate or higher.

Additionally, although not intended, the BISSP results, as partially evidenced by Fig. 3, also define the nature of what transpires in a wet bench university or research foundation basic research laboratory. It also identifies, in a unique way, what university-based research laboratory managers, faculty principal investigators, and supervisors must attend to regarding the effective operation of the laboratory, safety, and strategic utilization. University faculty have shared Fig. 3 with their graduate students as an indicator of the unwritten elements that govern the effective conduct of a basic research program.

Finally, the BISSP has begun to influence the nature and content of some undergraduate degree programs. There is realization that if the elements of Fig. 3 are essential to the training of technicians, then they should also apply to the education and inherent training of baccalaureates in some realistic and meaningful manner.22 These influences have begun to occur at the level of Good Laboratory Practice, creation of team-based approaches, exposure to regulatory matters, new courses on introduction to the process of drug development, etc. In the United States higher education system, community colleges are designed to respond quickly to changing economic and social dynamics in their environment by quickly developing programs and courses to meet changing societal needs. Four-year colleges and higher institutions are less disposed to rapid and effective change. In fact, one could argue that the lack of responsiveness of the latter institutions has been a major reason for their success, in not following fads and flash-in-the-pan external pressures. Regardless, on average, the pre-baccalaureate institutions are meeting industry demands in a manner that many 4-year and higher institutions are not, and because of that fact, are viewed by the industry as being essential partners in producing an adequate workforce.

In the meantime, and in the relative short term, the community college “Baccalaureate Retread” programs will continue to provide a vital service for workforce maintenance. Gradually, the need for such retread programs will diminish as 4-year institutions (some at Sequoia tree-growing speeds) tweak their existing curricula and degree requirements to more closely match industry expectations. Eventually and hopefully, from the perspective of the industry, both the “Baccalaureate-Retread Problem” and the “Baccalaureate Retention Problem” will disappear.

Figure FIGURE 1..

Skills, knowledge, and attributes for Bioscience Technical Specialist I.

Figure FIGURE 2..

Tools and equipment used by Bioscience Technical Specialist I.

Figure FIGURE 3..

Job function and tasks of a Bioscience Technical Specialist I.


  1. 1

    The abbreviation used is: BISSP, Bioscience Industry Skill Standards Project.

  2. 2

    We are well aware of the controversies and debate on education versus training. The current blurring of the two terms, especially from industry perspectives, will be the subject of a future article.