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An Innovative Apprenticeship Program Fills the Skills Gap and Gives New Students a Path to STEM Jobs

Nina Ibemi and Regina Stoltz are the first two graduates of an innovative new apprenticeship program that qualifies them to work in biomedical research, an industry that fosters strong regional growth.

The Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship is an extension of the 18-year-old Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) program, established by Community College of Philadelphia and the Wistar Institute to meet the growing demand for technicians at area healthcare and research centers.

At Wistar, Ibemi works in vaccine and tumor research. “I fell in love with histology,” she said of her new career. “We help scientists figure out how to make treatments.”

 As Ibemi and fellow apprentice Regina Stoltz trained, they were mentored by experienced professionals and worked side-by-side with top scientists and students in doctoral and post-doctoral programs, an opportunity they wouldn’t have had without the partnership. Two new apprentices are slated to begin training soon for in-demand jobs.    

 “Employers across Pennsylvania need skilled workers with the hands-on training that programs and apprenticeships like this provide,” said Pennsylvania Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak, who spoke at the BRT and BTT graduation in August.   “Today’s graduates were trained in industry-grade laboratories and have the skills to get good jobs in the science and research sector throughout our commonwealth.”

The programs have put a number of non-traditional students on a STEM career path, with 152 graduating from the technician program since it began, including the 12 honored on Aug. 2. Of the 152, 53 percent are minorities and 72 percent are women, which deepen the diversity of ideas in the industry.

The apprenticeships are part of Governor Wolf’s $50 million PAsmart initiative. By providing targeted funding for apprenticeship programs, STEM education, computer science, and more, students and workers get the training and real-world skills needed for the 21st century economy. In April, the Governor announced $3.5 million in apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship grants, which included funding for the biomedical technician and apprenticeship programs at the College and Wistar.  

Ibemi had earned a graduate degree in chemical engineering in Russia, but could only find work as a tutor there. Now she’s excited about the prospect of advancing science.  Stoltz, was an artist who, tired of struggling, wanted a career. She marvels that she’s now on a path to a career where salaries can top $50,000 and hiring demand is strong.

Ibemi and Stoltz represent a new trend in apprenticeships, which have traditionally been associated with the building trades. These “nontraditional” apprenticeships apply a similar model to a different field. They combine classroom training and on-the-job mentoring in a program regulated and approved by the state. Apprentices are not interns, but paid employees receiving raises as their skills and knowledge increase.

“This 2018 graduating year of biomedical research technicians represents a first for Wistar as we are proud to graduate two inaugural students who have completed our first-of-its-kind, nontraditional, credentialed BRT Apprenticeship program alongside our 12 BTT Program graduates,” said Dr. William Wunner, Wistar director of outreach education and technology training, and director of academic affairs. “Our apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs feed into the region’s strength in the life sciences by developing experienced research technicians who can add to the vital workforce.”
Dr. Donald Guy Generals said, “We are excited to witness the first two BRT Apprentices graduate in the first of its kind career path apprenticeship.  This model will expand to support the development of the region’s growing and industrious biomedical and biotech labor force.”