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National Apprenticeship Week at Wistar: Trailblazing Nontraditional Apprenticeship Trains Future Specialized Biomedical Research Lab Technicians

It’s National Apprenticeship Week. This yearly celebration offers an opportunity to highlight the benefits of preparing a highly skilled workforce for diverse industries.

To most, the word ‘apprenticeship’ does not bring to mind biomedical research, but this is about to change, as new approaches for developing a biomedical research workforce are shifting the traditional paradigms that define the working environment in science. 

The biotechnology enterprise is burgeoning in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Philadelphia region. This expansion creates a need for highly qualified lab technicians and research assistants both in academia and industry.

The Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship at Wistar, now in its second year, is the first registered, nontraditional apprenticeship program for biomedical research ratified by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

While carrying forward the Institute’s enduring mission to train scientific talent, the BRT Apprenticeship answers the call from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to create new training opportunities that can connect people with highly specialized jobs.

Applying the model used by skilled trades, nontraditional apprenticeships aim to serve the community by providing expert training and place highly skilled, qualified workers into the job market.

“Being an apprentice speaks to a high level of specialization and training,” said Brian Keith, Ph.D., dean of Biomedical Studies at Wistar.

Mentoring is at the core of the apprenticeship experience and mastery by the apprentice is carefully planned based on the needs of the lab and the interests of the trainee. 

Created as an extension of Wistar’s staple Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program – which has been around for nearly 20 years – the BRT Apprenticeship equips apprentices with critical in-depth expertise in a specific field of lab work. 

“The BRT Apprenticeship transforms BTT graduates from generalists to specialists,” said William H. Wunner, Ph.D., director of Academic Affairs and director of Outreach Education and Technology Training at Wistar.

“Completion of the BRT Apprenticeship makes our graduates stand out in the crowd, in the job market, because they have a better-defined, certified professional profile,” added Keith. “It can be a stepping stone for landing higher-level lab technician jobs and managerial positions.”

As required for nontraditional apprenticeships, the BRT Apprenticeship provides 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of curriculum. 

“It’s an intense training experience,” said Wunner. “The apprentices acquire competencies that will help them perform a certain function in the lab where they work, but because of the high level of specialization some have taken advantage of the training received at Wistar to go and get professional certifications that will critically enhance their resumes.”

Completing the BTT Program is a prerequisite to apply for the BRT Apprenticeship. 

“We love how BTT funnels us a diverse population of trainees through the Community College of Philadelphia,” added Wunner. “We have young students as well as more seasoned individuals who are in the process of changing careers, and foreign nationals that are looking for ways to repurpose their previous education and training. The BRT Apprenticeship offers these individuals an opportunity to step up to the next level. The main requirement to complete the program is the determination to be successful.”

Wistar hopes to expand the capacity of the Apprenticeship and work as a connector between apprentices and prospective employers from academia and industry. It is up to employers to invest in hiring apprentices and mold their skills and expertise, which is the most proactive way to find a person who is the best fit for a position. The BRT Apprenticeship also benefits from an important partnership with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which is investing significantly in job creation through apprenticeship training and providing funds to partially off-set employer’s costs while training apprentices to learn and earn.  

“We hope to serve as an example for other institutions in the region, who might use the BRT Apprenticeship as a model for expanding the biomedical workforce to meet growing demand in the area,” said Keith.