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Thinking about Core Competencies for Biotech

“Certification,” “core competencies,” “career ladders,” “credentialing,” “stackable credentials,” “accelerated learning”…

These are terms being brandished in the circles of my professional life. I suspect that large infusions of grant dollars from the Department of Labor (DOL) are at least partially responsible for the introduction of these terms into our collective consciousness. I was recently a minor participant in the writing of a DOL grant proposal and therefore tried to understand these terms and the mindset behind them. Certification, credentialing, and other such undertakings are based on identifying, as exactly as possible, what people must know/do in a certain situation.

There have been many efforts over the years to determine what biotechnology technicians must know to be successful in their jobs. These have been published in regional and national skill standards documents that can be accessed through the Bio-Link Clearinghouse. While working on the DOL grant proposal, I reexamined some of these skill standard documents in an effort to refine my own thinking as to what is truly essential for our students to master in a laboratory-based biotechnology program. Obviously the so-called “soft-skills” are essential. But what about technical skills; pinpointing these is more difficult. For example, being able to separate DNA fragments with electrophoresis seems to be a core skill when one thinks of the emergence of biotechnology as an industry in the latter part of the twentieth century. But, many of the graduates of our biotechnology program will never run an electrophoresis gel in their professional lives. Leave it in? Take it out?

Biotechnology is so vast that it is difficult to pin down its essential core. Despite these ambiguities, while working on this DOL proposal I attempted to distill the most essential “core competencies” for laboratory-based biotechnology programs. This was done in consultation with my colleagues, Jeanette Mowery, Elaine Johnson, Linnea Fletcher, and Sandy Porter. I’m providing the results for discussion and evolution.

What do you think?        



The following document is a draft of “common core” technical skill competencies that are specific for biotechnology. Common core refers to skills and knowledge that apply broadly to most biotechnology workplaces. Specialized skills, such as operating a flow cytometer or performing the polymerase chain reaction, while critically important in some settings, are not considered to be core and are not included here.
This document draws on the Washington State Skill Standards1 and the Department of Labor Skills Standards2, both projects that brought in large teams of biotechnology practitioners.
These standards are intended to describe the skills and underlying knowledge required of entry level biotechnology technicians in:

  • Basic Bioscience Research/Academic Laboratories
  • Testing Laboratories Relating to Biotechnology (e.g., pharmaceutical development laboratories, quality control laboratories)
  • Small Scale Biotechnology Production Facilities (e.g., facilities that produce gram quantities of enzyme using laboratory-scale equipment)
  • Bioprocessing Pilot Plants
  • Large Scale Bioprocessing Facilities (Note: larger scale bioprocessing may have additional requirements that are considered to be “core” relating to engineering and mechanics.)

It is not reasonable to expect entry level technicians to establish processes and procedures in a workplace, although they may do so later in their careers or in some situations. Therefore, these standards frequently use the phrase “according to established procedures” to indicate that the technician is following processes and procedures that were put in place by the employer.
These standards are organized around 10 core topics:

  1. Biotechnology Industry Fundamentals
  2. Health, Safety, and Security
  3. Basic Calculations
  4. Routine Facility Support
  5. Quality Control and Assurance; Basic Regulatory Affairs
  6. Metrology
  7. Biological Solutions
  8. Basic Separation Methods
  9. Assays, Data Collection, Data Evaluation
  10. Cell Techniques  

What do you think?        


1. 2007 Biotechnology and Biomedical Skill Standards; Copyright 2007, State of Washington through the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
2. Bioscience Competency Model; United States Department of Labor.

common_core_skills_5_13_without_checklist.docx94.31 KB
Bio-Link Program: 
Madison Area Technical College


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