Who's hiring cell and gene therapy technicians, and what do they want them to know?

Scanning electron microscope image of T regulatory cells (red) interacting with antigen-presenting cells (blue). T regulatory cells can suppress responses by T cells to maintain homeostasis in the immune system. Credit: NIAID

According to a recent labor market analysis report [1], universities, research institutes, and many companies are competing for a limited pool of technicians who can produce cell and gene therapy products.

Cell therapy products include immunotherapies, cancer vaccines, and other types of both autologous (self cells; the donor is the patient) and allogeneic (other cells; the cells come from a universal donor) cells designed to treat different conditions. The cells used to produce cell therapy products include hematopoietic (from bone marrow) stem cells and adult and embryonic stem cells. Hematopoietic cells are the cells that become blood cells and a diverse group of immune cells.

Human gene therapy products are used to modify or manipulate human genes or the expression of human genes. Gene therapy products can also be used to change the properties of living cells for use as therapeutics.

What's in the Report?

In 2020, NIIMBL (National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals), along with six community / technical colleges, the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology (70NANB17H002), and The Workforce Expansion in Biomanufacturing Emerging Technologies (WE-BET) initiative (Project Call 2.2-152) developed a cell and gene therapy labor analysis report. NIIMBL is one of 16 Manufacturing USA Institutes that establishes networks of public-private partnerships to work with academic and private sector manufacturing organizations on research and development and manufacturing skills training.

The report, "Labor Market Analysis for Cell and Gene Therapy Technician Workforce," an 82 page PDF with 80 references to websites and news articles, provides a 2020 snapshot of market characteristics and labor issues in four main sections:

  • The Growth and Economic Impact of the Cell and Gene Therapy Market includes regenerative medicine investments between 2017 and 2020, a brief history of commercial gene therapy, and discusses the "biomanufacturing boom." Using data from the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine’s 2020 Annual Report, the report indicated that there are 1085 gene, cell & tissue-based therapeutic developers worldwide. 543 are in North America with most of those being in the United States.
  • The Stages of Development for Cell and Gene therapy Companies gives a high-level overview of the cell and gene therapy discovery and commercialization process. The process, broken into three general stages: R&D (research and development), commercialization employment, and manufacturing employment, defines company growth stages from startup (a focus on R&D) to preclinical development, to clinical trial phases, to commercial maturity, to scaling and expansion. 
  • National Labor Market for the Cell and Gene Therapy Workforce provides an overview to set the context for the report's deals. Subsections describe workforce challenges and industry growing pains to emphasize the hiring issues such as poaching, job hopping, compensation inflation, relocation, talent development, and the impact on small business, "the small business squeeze," that results from a rapidly growing industry. This section closes with employment challenges related to manufacturing and talent development due to projected employment growth which the report estimates to be between 2.6 (12,000 to 31,000 jobs) and 4.2 (12,000 to 52,000 jobs) times by 2030.
  • The Six Regions describe the employers, employment needs, biotechnology activities, and labor trends for the Greater Philadelphia, North Carolina, Boston / Massachusetts, Seattle / Washington, San Francisco Bay, and San Diego regions. The report also included California as a region, so technically seven regions were analyzed.  Employers and their labor needs were determined from job posts in the Burning Glass database.

For each region, the numbers of job posts related to cell and gene manufacturing were counted by employer. The number of occurrences of terms related to knowledge and skills were also counted. The report broke these down as specialized skills and baseline skills, respectively. Data for top 10 items in each category (employer, specialized skills, baseline skills) were listed in tables. In addition to these data, the top 10 job titles, and number of open jobs were reported. In all 5844 job listings were analyzed: 322 in Pennsylvania, 349 in North Carolina, 1221 in Massachusetts, 588 in the Seattle Area, 894 in the Bay Area, 570 in San Diego, and 1900 in California.

Who are the cell and gene therapy employers?

Pie chart comparing number of job posts between academic and industry employers

For early stage technologies, like cell and gene therapy, it is common for work to be done in universities and research institutes (collectively research institutions). Because initial discoveries for many biotechnologies are made in research labs within these institutions, they have active technology transfer groups [2], that assist with early business development, grant planing, and licensing the intellectual property associated with the underlying discoveries [2]. In some cases, such as treating cancer, research institutions specialize in developing and delivering specialized therapies such cell and gene therapy. Hence is it not surprising that the top 10 employers, in terms their numbers of job posts, included several research institutions.

With the exception of North Carolina, the top employer in every region is a research institution. Of the 59 employers with the highest number of job posts, 19 are research institutions, and 36 are companies. Three universities (in California) appear in more than one top 10 list, and nine companies appear more than once in top 10 lists. Some of the companies are large organizations with facilities in multiple locations.

In terms of the number of job advertisements, 1079 (45%) of the top 10 employers were from universities or research institutes, and 1269 of the top 10 posts were from companies. It’s worth noting that much of the data is not reported. The top 10 values account for about 40% of the total data set, so it is likely that many more companies are hiring, but have fewer job openings. The University of California had largest number of open jobs (237), with Seattle’s Fred Hutch Cancer Research Institute, and Seattle Genetics being second and third with 121, and 105 posts, respectively.

What do cell and gene therapy employers want you to know?

To better understand what employers want cell and gene therapy job applicants to know, the report team analyzed the words in job ads and created two categories of terms, which they called "specialized skills" and "baseline skills." Each category is further discussed below.

Specialized Knowledge

The report used the term "specialized skills" to refer to knowledge related to the science that underlies cell and gene therapy. We believe "knowledge" is a better description for the presented data because the words in the top 10 lists do not convey actions that would associated with a skill. For example the term "Molecular Biology" implies knowledge; one may know about genes, how they are expressed, or perhaps cloned. But molecular biology is big area. Thus, as a descriptor, the term can have many meanings. Molecular biology skills could include the ability to purify DNA, the ability to perform a restriction digest, and the ability to perform and analyze the results of a BLAST [3] search. Like molecular biology knowledge, molecular biology skills can be vast. For cell and gene therapy, we might assume relevant skills could include DNA purification, cloning, sequencing, and using computer software to conduct sequence comparisons. Different jobs in the research to production continuum will require different subsets of molecular biology knowledge and skills.

Based on the “top 10” items per region, the report team identified 22 areas of knowledge that job posts indicate as important. Molecular biology (2589), experiments (2446), biology (2269), and cell culturing (2032) were found in all regions. Biochemistry (1881) and cell biology (1326) were identified in six regions. Quality assurance and control (1259), biotechnology (1061), flow cytometry (959), DNA (611), cGMP (430), and qPCR (475) were found in five, three, four, three, three, and two regions, respectively. The remaining terms, cancer knowledge (199), genetics (146), immune system (144), tissue culture (136), western blot (135), influenza (77), influenza vaccine (76), calculation (73), chemistry (63), and GLP (62) were found in single regions.  Regional differences in top 10 lists, likely reflect the research / startup to manufacturing compositions of local employers.

For each knowledge area the number of jobs posts (y-axis) and number of regions (number above the bars) are indicated.

Baseline skills

Baseline skills generally refer to non-science knowledge and abilities. Some of these skills are referred to as "soft" or "employability" skills because they describe how a person works, rather than what a person knows. This is the part of many job descriptions that says "we're seeking highly motivated candidates with excellent communication skills." The report identified 16 top baseline skills. As before, the terms are a mix of knowledge and skills. It’s interesting that research was identified as the top baseline skill. As research involves experiments, it seems apropos that it would be a specialized skill. Research (4191), communication (3185), organization (1965), detail-orientated (1850), teamwork (1674), and troubleshooting (1539) were identified in all regions. Microsoft (MS) Excel (1124) was identified in six regions. Written communication (1186), MS Office (314), and problem solving (850) were identified in four regions. Writing (627), multi-tasking (222), and computer literacy (169) were noted in three and two regions, respectively. Time management (129), planning (74), and MS word (40) were identified in single regions.

For each skill area the number of jobs posts (y-axis) and number of regions (number above the bars) are indicated.

The above baseline skills are mostly reasonable, with the exception of multitasking. According to a Harvard Business Review article [4] (very respected in business circles) and many other sources, multitasking is a myth. Be wary of ads that seek this as an attribute, because it may be in indicator of an unfocused employer or manager. In my career as first a technician, then as a graduate student, then as an entrepreneur and employer, I've never had anyone tell me I should multitask more, or assign employees several tasks at once. I've also never heard anyone say it is a good idea to work on email during a meeting. Ask someone who is doing email during a conversation a question and they'll likely not know what is going on. To the contrary, my advisors always recommended focus, and creating environments for my teams to focus, and we generally ask people to be present during meetings. Time management is an appropriate skill, multitasking is not.

In summary, the "Labor Market Analysis for Cell and Gene Therapy Technician Workforce" report provides a wealth of information about employment trends and needs in this important area of biotechnology. While I have some issues with a few details in the report, the key word analyses provide a reasonable picture of what employers are looking for. The challenge for instructors providing technical education, and those interested in pursuing in careers in cell and gene therapy, is where to focus precious time and resources. In some cases, existing education programs meet many needs and in other cases new courses will be needed. Technical education that includes the basics of molecular biology such as working with DNA and DNA cloning, combined with cell culture methods and some bioinformatics will go a long way. Being able to talk about your experiences, present data to others, and manage time will be beneficial as well. Remember to present data, one needs to work with data, and computer literacy is a must.  To understand different applications of cell and gene therapy with respect to what employers really need requires additional context and conversations with local employers. Fortunately, Biotech-Careers.org organizes employers by key words like cell and gene therapy and locations, so you can find the people that you need to talk to. 

References & Notes

[1] Labor Market Analysis for Cell and Gene Therapy Technician Workforce (July 2021), can be downloaded from http://biomanufacturing.org/nbc2-workshops/minibioman/mini-bioman-2016/m...

[2] As an example the University of Washington's CoMotion Group provides several kinds activities related to technology commercialization and startup assistance.

[3] BLAST: Basic Local Alignment and Search Tool is an commonly used family of programs that is used to compare DNA and protein sequences and use DNA and protein sequences to search databases (collections) of DNA and protein sequences. Using BLAST programs effectively, requires knowledge of DNA bases, amino acids, and different kinds of DNA and protein sequence databases. To learn more visit Digital World Biology's Bioinformtics Tutorials.

[4] You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying - (2010) HBR (https://hbr.org/2010/12/you-cant-multi-task-so-stop-tr)

[5] Cell and Gene Therapy Employers (https://biotech-careers.org/company-core-activity/cell-and-gene-therapy)

[6] Immunotherapy Employers (https://biotech-careers.org/company-core-activity/immunotherapy)



Submitted by Todd Smith on Sat May 14, 2022.

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