CCCC’s BioWork: a pathway to good jobs and a better life

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BioWork, a program at Central Carolina Community College, is changing lives and filling the workforce pipeline with skilled technicians ready to work in the growing life sciences industry sector in central North Carolina.

Launched in May 2020 at CCCC, BioWork is a short-term certificate program that gives students the foundational skills they need to begin a career in biotechnology or pharmaceutical or chemical manufacturing.

The program is offered every semester and has the capacity to serve about 50 students per semester, said Lisa Smelser, biotechnology program director at CCCC.

Staggered start times make the program convenient for students from all walks of life to take the classes and earn a BioWork certificate without waiting until the start of a new semester.

“My goal is to ensure that whenever someone wants to explore ways of getting jobs in the biotechnology and life sciences industry, we can offer this program right away,” Smelser said. “Two classes started in January, and two more are starting this month, with the next one launching on March 14.”

The program offers both daytime and evening lab classes for students with full-time jobs.

“BioWork is ideal for recent high school graduates, transitioning military, or anyone seeking a new career opportunity,” she said.

Starting salaries and a robust job market make BioWork an attractive program, according to Smelser.

“We tell students that with their BioWork certificate and a high school diploma or GED, salaries start out at $17 to $23 an hour, given the current economic job market,” she said, “and I think numbers higher than that are not uncommon.”

The BioWork certificate program prepares individuals for jobs as entry-level process technicians in forensic laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing companies, and research and development organizations. Process technicians are responsible for the creation of chemical and pharmaceutical products.

BioWork is administered through the N.C. State Community College System, which develops the curriculum and administers the certificate program. CCCC is one of 10 community colleges statewide offering the program.

In addition to salary levels that can support their families, BioWork graduates go on to jobs that enable them to have a hands-on role in developing therapeutic treatments that make a positive difference in peoples’ lives, said Lisa Rowley, vice president of economic development with the N.C. Biotechnology Center in Durham.

“Not every job gives employees an opportunity to have a direct role in keeping people from getting sick or helping someone that’s sick get better,” Rowley said. “Because we’re all impacted by our health and the health of our loved ones, this work can be really rewarding and lead to an exciting career path.”

As the Biotechnology Center continues to advance its mission to help make North Carolina a global leader in life sciences, Rowley and her team work closely with the state’s community colleges “because whenever a company is thinking about where it wants to locate or grow, one of the first things they will consider is where they will find a ready workforce to help them grow and thrive.”

“As a subsector of the life sciences industry, biomanufacturing in North Carolina is particularly strong,” Rowley added, “and we’re seeing a huge amount of growth in our life sciences industry overall.”

As home to more than 700 life science companies, North Carolina currently ranks third in the nation for biotechnology, according to CCCC.

All this is music to Michael Smith’s ears. As president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation, Smith oversees industry recruitment and product development.

Before coming to Chatham County, Smith held a similar position in neighboring Lee County. He has worked closely with the recruiting efforts making central North Carolina a top destination for major pharmaceutical and life sciences companies, and Moncure’s Triangle Innovation Point is growing into a hub of activity.

“One of the remarkable things that has happened in the last 12 months is the myriad of announcements from new industries locating here, from Holly Springs, straight down U.S. 1,” Smith said. “We continue to see interest from life science corporations that want to be in this region because of all the assets that are already here.”

The major players currently forming the U.S. 1 biotechnology and life sciences corridor include FujiFilm Diosynth Technologies, Amgen and Seqirus in Holly Springs, and Pfizer, Audentes Gene Therapy and Abzena in Sanford.

“We are trying to do a better job of getting the word out about how many great jobs our local residents can find here in this region without having to go very far,” Smith said. “It’s amazing the number of fantastic employers we have.”

In addition to educating the biotechnology technicians and professionals of the future, BioWork offers career fairs throughout the year, and they are paying off for both employers and people seeking jobs, Smelser said.

“Over the four virtual career fairs have data for, we had 65 students who registered, 36 students who had post-career fair interviews, and we had 27 confirmed job offers,” she said. “I think that is amazing and super exciting.”

This spring, according to Smelser, CCCC is taking its program a step further by creating a business and industry leadership team tasked with evaluating curriculum to make sure it continues to align with real world needs.

“We are preparing to take a really deep dive into the knowledge, skills and abilities that industries require,” she said. “Then we will kick that back to my department to ensure we are meeting expectations, finding out what we need to address, making necessary changes, and reporting back to industry the actions we are taking.”

By helping attract jobs to central North Carolina, the BioWork program at CCCC and other community colleges is helping local residents build better lives.

“I want to make sure we are helping people find a pathway to those jobs, because I think they hear that there are new jobs offering better pay, but it’s not always clear how they can connect to them or get from point A to point B,” Smelser said. “Our hope is that we can be the entire connector for students and make these jobs their reality.”

What is BioWork?

The BioWork certificate program will teach you the foundational skills you need to begin a career as a process technician for a biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or chemical manufacturing company.

What does a process technician do?

Process technicians are responsible for the production and manufacturing of chemical and pharmaceutical products.

How do you access the BioWork program?

Ten community colleges across North Carolina offer the program.

What are the enrollment qualifications?

Have a high school diploma or equivalent, attend an information session, and complete reading and math placement tests.

How can I get more information?

Visit the Biowork page on the CCCC website. 

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