Pharmaceutical Manufacturing: A Career ‘Straight Out of High School’

Diana De Leon
Diana De Leon is a young woman on a mission.

“I really love my job,” says Diana De Leon, a 2020 graduate of North Pitt High School in Greenville, N.C.

De Leon is a newly minted operator at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a contract manufacturer of pharmaceuticals in her home town.

At the company’s 1.55-million-square-foot complex, encompassing eight buildings on 142 acres, she helps produce medicine that changes lives and meets customers’ needs.

“We’re always being told there that every dose has a name on it, that everything we make there has a huge impact on a person’s life – maybe a family member, a friend or maybe you one day,” says De Leon. “So it feels really great to know we’re helping someone every day.”

De Leon landed her job at Thermo Fisher Scientific in the summer of 2020 after graduating from high school and completing a specialized training program called the Pharma K12 Workforce Training Development Initiative. The program gives interested high school seniors in Pitt County an introduction to commercial drug manufacturing so they are primed for entry-level production jobs.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn and to get into a career starting straight out of high school,” De Leon says.

Within weeks after high school graduation, the students take 20 hours of coursework over three days to learn theory and manufacturing techniques for oral solid dose medicines, the pharmaceutical industry’s term for medicines made as tablets, capsules, powders, granules and beads.

The students learn in a pilot-scale manufacturing environment at the Pharmaceutical Services Network at Pitt Community College. The coursework exposes them to weighing, milling, granulating, blending, tableting, tablet coating, encapsulation and other techniques involved in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

“It is a chance for local talent to not only catapult their careers with a Fortune 200 Employer, Thermo Fisher Scientific, but to join a growing industry that is full of possibilities for them to carve out their future," says Alicia Moody, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s human resources manager in Greenville.

Biotech Center involved

The training program was conceived by Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the Eastern Regional Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. He proposed a sponsorship opportunity to Thermo Fisher Scientific in early 2019 as a pilot program for interested seniors from North Pitt High School.

Diana De Leon
Diana De Leon

An inaugural class of seven students took the course in the summer of that year, and two of them were hired by the company.

“While the first year was an overall success, realistically, I along with others who had a vested interest in the program probably wanted the students worse than they wanted us,” recalls Phillips.

As the next school year approached, he and others visited each high school in Pitt County to drum up wider interest in the program among rising seniors. The ensuing COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 presented some challenges, but six students qualified for the program and in the summer completed a delayed training program conducted with COVID safety precautions. Four of them soon landed jobs at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“The success of this program would not be possible without the continued sponsorship and support from Thermo Fisher Scientific, as well as the support from Pitt County Schools’ Career - Technical Education Department and Pitt Community College’s Pharmaceutical Services Network,” Phillips says. “I look forward to continuing this program to support the workforce development needs of the pharmaceutical industry, but more importantly, to helping students with life-changing career opportunities in a great industry.”

Hands-on training emphasized

“The real strength of this programming is the hands-on piece,” says Network Director Mike Renn. “We’re giving these students the background knowledge of what the (manufacturing) process looks like and understanding what you’re doing while you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it.”

The training also includes how to work safely, follow current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), and carefully document production steps in an industry that’s tightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“It goes beyond just the mechanics of how you make a tablet,” Renn says.

The training gives young people a competitive advantage in the job market by pre-qualifying them for good-paying jobs in a large and growing industry.

Thermo Fisher expansion rendering.
Thermo Fisher Scientific's Dec. 2020 expansion rendering.

North Carolina is home to 82 biologics and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies that employ about 27,000 people at 92 sites throughout the state, according to the Biotech Center’s Life Science Intelligence team. The companies include well-known names such as Biogen, GSK, Merck, Pfizer, Novo Nordisk and Grifols, as well as Thermo Fisher Scientific and Mayne Pharma in Greenville.  

“These are all going to be good companies to work for,” Renn says. “These companies seem to be in a grow mode.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific announced in December 2020 an approximately $500 million investment in its Greenville operations over the next two years as it expands its sterile drug product development and commercial manufacturing of critical medicines, therapies and vaccines. The expansion will add 500 employees to the site’s 1,500-person staff.

“We see the Pharma K12 program providing the longer-term pipeline of local talent into our organization to support our growth and expansion in the coming years,” says Michelle Logan, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s vice president and general manager in Greenville. "The creation of the Pharma K-12 program is a phenomenal step in workforce development that leverages our partnership with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Pharmaceutical Services Network at Pitt Community College. The program provides talented high school graduates with the skills and understanding needed to start and grow a successful career within the pharmaceutical industry right in their own backyard at Thermo Fisher Scientific.”

Good pay, ample career options possible

Nationally, pharmaceutical manufacturing technicians can expect to start at about $16 per hour, and the median compensation is about $21 per hour, according to Payscale, a compensation-data firm. That translates to between $32,000 and $42,000 per year, not counting overtime, bonuses and the value of benefits such as health insurance, retirement contributions, reimbursement of education expenses and other perks.

Capsules transporting at Thermo Fisher Scientific
Capsules on the move.

Getting a foot in the door at a pharmaceutical manufacturing company can also lead to other career options within the same company.

“There is a huge number of possible career paths outside of pharmaceutical manufacturing that would be open to people who start there,” Renn says. “There are lots and lots of opportunities in support roles around manufacturing.”

For those who start in manufacturing and progress to supervisory roles, there is room to branch out into quality assurance, validation, instrumentation, lab work, maintenance, plumbing, electrical and other realms, he says.

Renn, Phillips and other colleagues in Pitt County are “still getting the message out that the industry’s here, there are jobs to be had, and, ‘Instead of getting a job, I’ve got a career.’”

That message is even more pertinent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dried up many jobs in other industries but has left pharmaceutical-manufacturing jobs unscathed. 

Because many people don’t understand the pharmaceutical industry or how drugs are made, “it’s not the first thing that pops up on people’s minds when they’re looking for a job,” he says.

“People tend to have the sense that there’s some sort of nuclear chemistry going on here, that everybody who works in pharmaceutical manufacturing must have a Ph.D., and that’s not true,” Renn says. “There are hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees at these pharmaceutical sites. Many of the roles are attainable with a high school diploma, others require either A.A., B.S./B.A. or graduate degrees. The point here is there is a very wide range of opportunity in the pharmaceutical manufacturing arena.”

Renn tries to assure people that pharmaceutical manufacturing is more straightforward and less mysterious than they might think. “It’s a manufacturing process a lot like baking,” he says. “It’s like making muffins. There’s no chemistry. This is strictly a physical process.”

Various pharmaceutical ingredients are weighed, mixed, hydrated, dried and compressed according to a “recipe,” he explains. “You’re executing against a very highly defined set of instructions.”

Attention to detail, close communication with coworkers and documentation of completed tasks – all performed in a hyper-clean environment – are hallmarks of the work. 

A day in Diana’s life

Thermo Fisher Scientific employee
Pharma manufacturing needs a wide range of workers. -- Thermo Fisher Scientific

Diana De Leon’s 12-hour manufacturing shifts in Thermo Fisher Scientific’s “steriles” department, which makes medicines in liquid and freeze-dried forms, starts with shedding her street clothes and donning protective gear including a gown, booties, glasses, gloves, mask and hair net.

She meets with group leaders about the day’s plans and goals, potential problems and how to improve on the previous day’s work.

She picks up where the previous shift left off, by test-running machines such as fillers and cappers, and then beginning production, all while carefully documenting each step for regulatory compliance.

Her usual schedule is Monday through Friday, but she often works overtime.

“I try to go in every day I can,” she says. “I like that I can get as many hours as I want.”

A head start on her career goals

De Leon’s path to Thermo Fisher Scientific began in her junior year of high school when she expressed an interest in the life sciences. Phillips visited her school, discussed career options with her, and suggested she apply for the training program during her senior year.

“I wanted to get a head start in the industry because I was already interested in it,” De Leon says.

After completing the training and starting work at Thermo Fisher Scientific, her initial months at the company have been rewarding, she says.

Thermo Fisher Scientific worker
One of the millions from Thermo Fisher Scientific in Greenville.

“Everyone there is nice and understanding and helps you learn,” she says. “They’re supportive. It’s been kind of like a community there.”

She juggles her work at the company with full-time coursework in the biotechnology program at Pitt Community College, where she wants to earn a two-year associate’s degree before pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree at a university.

When she’s not working or studying, she enjoys reading medical journals and staying abreast of the COVID-19 pandemic, new medical advances and biomedical clinical trials.

“I would like hopefully one day to be able to run a clinical trial,” she says.

There should be plenty of opportunities for her to do that. North Carolina has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of contract research organizations (CROs), companies that help pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical companies run clinical trials and develop drugs. An online company directory published by the Biotech Center lists 35 company sites that provide clinical trials management, including eight of the world’s top 10 largest CROs by revenue, and another 215 sites that provide supporting services to the industry.

“Hopefully it all comes together,” says Diana.

Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
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