Employers wanted for Mohawk biotech grads
The first graduates of Mohawk College's health biotechnology technician program are entering the work world. But the downturn in the economy has made it tough to find full job placements as well as co-op work terms in their chosen areas.
About 35 students are getting their health biotechnology diplomas this month (June). They are part of a two-stream program that takes in health biotechnology technicians and the more established biotech technicians course that began in 2004.
For many grads in both streams, the problem is securing full-time positions and putting Mohawk programs on employers' radar screens. “It's an awareness thing, really – what our students can provide them at the entry-level (technician) positions,” said Dan Wilson, professor and co-ordinator of chemical, environmental, and biotechnology programs at the college.
As of April, more than 150 students were either at school or in co-op job placements. Their training orients them toward careers in the vast biosciences arena – everything from biologics, which are replacing synthesized drugs; biofuels, the ‘green’ hope of energy; animal and plant genomes; biosensors; and biosecurity innovations.
And, of course, part of the interest in biotech has been the television celebrity of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). The various CSI spinoffs have been an accelerant in firing up interest in college and university forensic sciences programs. Mohawk began offering its own forensics course last fall.
“I've never taught a program where there is so much change,” says Wilson. “Every two weeks, it seems there is a new vaccine coming out or a new bacteria eating up an oil spill or something.”
Biotechnology technicians might work in such settings as laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, in food processing, agricultural products, plant or livestock genetic engineering and environmental engineering.
Health biotechnology technicians are more likely found in such areas as bio-medicine, genetics, forensics, agricultural and food production, bio-pharmaceuticals, and medical device firms.
Mohawk is looking at the potential for a three-year technology study program, said Wilson. Down the road, a degree program might even be possible, perhaps in concert with a school such as Australian-based Charles Sturt University, which has a campus in Burlington.
Among the skills and tasks that students learn to perform are: DNA and protein absorption spectrophotometry; agarose gel DNA electrophoresis; ion exchange and thin layer chromatography; basic techniques in microbiology; and, micropipetting, extractions, titrations, centrifugation and pH measurements using Good Lab Practices (GLP).
Mohawk officials plan to continue meeting with employers and biosector representatives to get the marketing word out about their technician courses. That's important both for final job placements and for interim co-op positions.
“We've seen it (the impact of the downturn). It has hit us and (some students) had to come back to Mohawk when they couldn't get a job. ... Without (the co-op aspect), the program founders,” says Wilson. “We're hurt with the economy like everybody else, so we're looking for more (employer) partners.”
Mohawk is also working with SISO, the Settlement and Integration Services Organization, to assist immigrants and refugee communities. The college has created a bridging program that would help applicants who might be interested in biotech technician employment.
This bridge would offer candidates, some of whom may already have a biotech background, an overview of the sector. It would also provide training in sector terminology and familiarize SISO students with issues and trends in the Canadian-based biotech segment of the economy.