Encouraging Women and Girls to Explore Careers in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

GREENVILLE, North Carolina — As the need continues to grow for a strong labor force in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries around the world, efforts are underway in eastern North Carolina to attract and develop a local talent pipeline.

Today, communities worldwide are celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Local companies are taking part by highlighting the women in the industry, while also encouraging girls to consider careers in science.

“There are many amazing opportunities in the science field for women to grow careers,” said Michelle Logan, vice president and general manager of the Greenville, North Carolina facility for Thermo Fisher Scientific. “We need to talk about that more in our industry and across the globe. It’s pretty powerful and we want to help educate younger girls about the exciting career opportunities and potential in the science field.”

Logan is a Currituck County native who is passionate about creating opportunities for careers in biotechnology and pharmaceutical manufacturing. For Logan, the mission is personal. It stems from her own experience as a child interested in science.

“I knew pretty early on in middle school that science and math was something that I wanted to do,” said Logan.

She graduated high school and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in biology with aspirations to go on to med school. However, she changed her mind.

“I quickly realized that wasn’t for me,” admitted Logan. “I looked for opportunities to take a path and still be able to do things that support the greater good.”

Michelle Logan, vice president and general manager of the Greenville, North Carolina facility for Thermo Fisher Scientific

With her love for science, she continued with the biology program and earned a Bachelor of Science. She then accepted a job in Greenville at DSM Pharmaceuticals, which is now Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world leader in serving science.

“This allowed me to continue to pursue my passion for problem-solving with science and math, while also contributing to the health and well-being of patients through the production of important medicines,” said Logan.

Her career started working in the environmental monitoring laboratory where she would conduct testing while running sterile injectable products.

“It was great foundational learning for me. It really taught me the basics of the production process and how medicines are made,” said Logan. “After working in that area for a couple of years, I wanted to broaden my career experience, so I moved into a new area to learn quality assurance and quality control.”

From there, Logan took an interest in leadership and moved into an operations role where she had the opportunity to lead and manage teams. In January 2020, she was promoted to lead the entire Greenville site, which is the largest manufacturing facility across all of Thermo Fisher Scientific. Just nine months later, the global life science services company announced a major expansion at the Greenville facility for sterile drug product development and commercial manufacturing of critical medicines, therapies, and vaccines. The expansion is expected to create 500 new jobs over the next two years.

“The Greenville site has not seen this level of expansion. Also, it’s not just about buildings and new equipment, but the growth in people and jobs,” explained Logan. “In addition to hiring for new roles, we’re also offering new opportunities to our existing employees and building new training centers to advance their development. It’s just a pretty cool time to be part of this team.”

The 1.5 million-square-foot Greenville site is a multi-purpose pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging campus with a current workforce of more than 1,500 employees. The expansion will include a new standalone 130,000-square-foot facility with two live virus filling lines which will be operational in 2022.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s investment at its Greenville site further strengthens our region to serve as a hub of pharmaceutical production,” said Steve Weathers, president and CEO of the Greenville Eastern North Carolina (ENC) Alliance.

The Greenville ENC Alliance is an economic development organization focused on marketing Greenville and Pitt County to support new and existing businesses while maximizing opportunities for investment, job creation, and economic growth.

“Our area already has more than 2,000 people working in pharmaceutical manufacturing occupations which is a concentration 12 times higher than the United States,” said Weathers.

This major expansion with hundreds of new jobs comes with a need to further expand and ready the workforce. While many of these new jobs will be filled by men and women already in the local labor force, some will be filled by workers who are recently trained or newly graduated, joining the workforce for the first time. This is where opportunity comes in for development and training through Pitt Community College.

“We need to increase our enrollment significantly to meet their needs,” said Pitt Community College biotechnology department chair Christina Weeks.

Christina Weeks, Pitt Community College biotechnology department chair

The biotechnology curriculum at PCC is designed to meet the increasing demands for skilled laboratory technicians in various fields of biological and chemical technology. This program is increasingly important as pharmaceutical manufacturers are growing quickly and need to develop the local workforce to keep up with the production demand.

“When you hire local, you keep your employees,” explained Weeks. “Our students who graduate from Pitt Community College are local and typically stay in these careers and don’t move to another community.”

At PCC, there are two career pathways for students who graduate with an Associate in Applied Science Degree. One is a research lab/forensic lab/university transfer pathway option for students interested in working in a research, forensics, or other lab capacity that require a Bachelor of Science degree or higher. The other pathway is a lab analyst/pharmaceutical lab technician option for students interested in quality control associated with pharmaceutical manufacturing. This pathway would educate and prepare the student for immediate employment at a local pharmaceutical manufacturer like Thermo Fisher Scientific or Metrics Contract Services, a division of Mayne Pharma, Inc. With the help of the Technical Academy, a partnership between Pitt County Schools and Pitt Community College, and Pitt County Schools Early College High School, some high schoolers are graduating high school with an associate degree, ready to join the biotechnology workforce.

“Process technicians are making close to $17 an hour starting out, with no experience,” said Weeks. “That’s pretty significant for someone with a high school degree and some college credit.”

For Weeks, it’s amazing to see local students graduate from a Pitt County high school and head straight into the workforce doing something they love while developing a career. As a Greene County native and two-time graduate of East Carolina University for undergraduate and graduate degrees, Weeks is passionate about growing opportunity for careers in biotechnology in eastern North Carolina, especially for women.

“I think we need more women in research and in the lab,” said Weeks. “I feel like students who show any kind of aptitude in science are immediately pushed toward health science.”

According to 2018 data from the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, there are nearly 79 million women in the labor force, resulting in a 47.3% share. The data shows that women dominate several health sciences occupations, including nurses and aides for nursing, psychiatric, and home health fields.

Graphic showing the top 10 occupations employing the largest number of women (2018) from the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau

“I think a lot of that is because throughout history women were considered caretakers,” shared Weeks. “We absolutely need more women in science, especially in the hard sciences like research and technology.”

Through her role at PCC and in the science community, Weeks is working to raise awareness about these other types of science-based career opportunities. This includes utilizing local employers to help educate and encourage young girls in the Pitt County community.

“Thermo Fisher is really interested in engaging with the community and engaging with students,” said Weeks.

In recent years, PCC has partnered with Thermo Fisher Scientific for STEM nights. These free science learning opportunities are geared toward elementary school students in Bethel. During the event, Thermo Fisher Scientific employees set up stations to interact with children while demonstrating experiments and involving them in activities to prove that science can be fun. The concept is to create a positive experience with STEM-based education and develop interest in science at a young age.

“There is a place for girls and women in science. There are a lot of women out there who really had to dig through cement to create that space,” said Weeks. “Women now have just as much opportunity as men in science.”

The team at Thermo Fisher is focused on developing a pipeline of candidates which is why local community college partnerships are vital.

Contributed photo from Thermo Fisher Scientific

“I think the more that we can push on the upfront training aspect across eastern North Carolina, the stronger our pipeline will be longer term to fill all of those roles,” said Logan. “We need more candidates that fill a variety of backgrounds to support our longer-term growth.”

Logan wants young girls who are interested in science to know that there is a place for them in a variety of concentrations throughout the entire field with varying levels of education and experience. This could be a recent high school grad who earned credits in biotechnology through Pitt Community College or someone who wants a career change after 20 years of experience in a different field.

“Here at Thermo Fisher, we’ve had great success of taking people with different educational backgrounds and helping them to build careers. What we’ve learned is that diversity and experience make a super well-rounded employee,” said Logan.

As a way to help create those well-rounded employees, there is a unique opportunity through the Life Science Training Initiative of the North Carolina Community College System. Anyone with a high school degree or equivalent interested in starting a career in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or chemical manufacturing fields can apply for the BioWork program. This certificate program is offered at 10 community colleges across the state, including PCC. The program and course work teach the foundational skills needed to begin a career as a process technician for a biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or chemical manufacturing company. Process technicians are responsible for the production of chemical and pharmaceutical products. The certificate program takes about three months to complete and costs less than $300 from start to finish. In addition, there are scholarship funding opportunities available to cover all program expenses and fees.

Through additional efforts of NCWorks, Rivers East Workforce Development Board, municipalities, and various educational systems, workforce development in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical manufacturing fields is a high priority. Logan says it all starts with interest and desire to help others.

Contributed photo from Thermo Fisher Scientific

“No matter what realm of the science field that you go into, there is a ton of opportunity to be on the front end of new discoveries and innovation that can have significant impact across the globe,” said Logan. “Whether you’re a new member of the cleaning crew who changes over the lines to get it ready for the next product or if you’re the person who’s on the line making the product, all of those important roles come together to get a patient the medicine they need. That’s super powerful. Our mission is to enable our customers to make the world healthier — which gives us all an important purpose behind what we do every day.”

To learn more about the biotechnology programs available at Pitt Community College, click here. If you’re interested in learning more about careers available at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Greenville, click here.

This piece was originally published by the Greenville Eastern North Carolina Alliance for the 2021 International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Greenville - Eastern North Carolina Alliance is a public-private partnership focused on economic development and business attraction, expansion, and retention.

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