Post Classifieds

Program aims for jobs in growing industry

Medical Device Engineering's pilot takes off

By Rina Shaikh-Lesko - Editor-in-Chief
On October 28, 2011


After being laid off, Sunita Verma had to decide where to focus her hunt for a new job. Describing the experience, she said, "I opened a deck of cards again and (had) to make the decision, which card am I going to pick? Is it a winning ace or a loser's card?"

She enrolled in Laney College's pilot program in Medical Device Engineering, which started in May 2011. Unemployed since August 2010, Verma had a job even before she completed the four-month program.

The goal of the pilot program, funded by the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board (ACWIB), was to provide training for the unemployed in skills they needed to get their foot in the door of this thriving but little-known industry. Laney partnered with UC Berkeley's Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center to provide the hands-on lab training.

It's the first program of its kind in the Bay Area, and the first step toward building a year-long permanent program at Laney. "This program, there's nothing like it," said Peter Crabtree, dean of the Instruction for the Vocational Technology Division.

Although the Bay Area has lost nearly 20,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years, the medical device industry has been growing. As the field of medicine advances, more and more complex devices are needed, from highly specialized artificial limbs to machines that are used in laser eye surgery to microfluidic "labs on a chip" that are shrunken versions of laboratory machinery.

Said Crabtree, "It's kind of an invisible industry, and secretive," often because the companies are working on proprietary products and processes.

However, several local companies provided consultation when it came time to design the program, including local companies Bio-Rad and Abbot Laboratories. Crabtree noted that tours of their labs required signing non-disclosure agreements.

Naima Azgui, the program's lead faculty, wanted to design a course of study that provided students with the knowledge and experience this diverse industry demands. "My goal is to help people get a good job, not just any job," she said. That meant classes in rapid prototyping, electronics, engineering and computer software.

It's an intensive course load, but most of the 18 students that started the program stayed with it and enjoyed the challenge. One student, Joyce Bush, said, "They took me where I thought I'd never go—and it was good. They taught me skills, transferable skills in the job market. It was a lot of hard work, but well worth it."

Besides mastering the fundamental theoretical knowledge, students also had to learn lab techniques, from the basics of pipetting and clean room procedures to more challenging skills such as soft lithography (creating polymers based on silicon templates) and fluid circuitry (creating electronic circuits with fluids instead of silicon).

There were other challenges for students. Because they were for the most part unemployed or underemployed, they often faced financial crisis. There were times when some students didn't have enough money to pay for transportation to class.

Their efforts seem to be paying off, though. The program ended in early September and, a month later, nine of the 16 graduates have jobs in the field.

This remarkable success may be due to the diverse experience students entered the program with. They ranged in age from their early 20s to mid-50s and had educational backgrounds in biology, mechanical engineering and nursing. "We came from all directions," said Verma. Her own background is in chemistry.

 The program also included a few people from NUMMI, the GM-Toyota automobile manufacturing plant in Fremont that closed in April, 2010. Those students had years of experience on the assembly line, but not much science training. Yet they had other skills they could draw on.

Paul Lum, director of the UC Berkeley Bioengineering Nanotechnology Center, said: "They got skills. These big ruddy guys, they can do these things. A welder now can handle a pipette. This guy, he can put a welding bead on a small surface area. Very skilled individuals, and very smart."

The students became a close-knit group and tutored each other through the tough parts. Verma explained, "There was one gentleman who had experience working with circuit boards, so (for) people who were struggling with how a circuit board worked, he came forward. The people who were struggling with math, people who had a strong feeling for math, they came forward."

Bush offered her writing skills to help others with their resumés when they started looking for work. "We all had diverse backgrounds but the program worked for all of us," she said.

The next step for Crabtree and Azgui is developing a year-long program and making it part of the core curriculum of the Vocational Technology Division. They are designing the courses and finding faculty to teach them in the hopes of having the program ready for fall semester 2012.

In late spring 2012, they plan to have another contract class (a short- term class like the pilot program) during which some of the planned changes will be implemented.

More classes will eventually be added to the program, including one on FDA regulatory rules and another on electron microscopy.

They may have to find funding for the ongoing program since ACWIB may not be able to continue its support, a difficult proposition during a time when classes in many areas are being cut.

Crabtree acknowledges that "No doubt, we are cutting classes and public education nationwide is hurting." However, he noted that programs that place graduates in growing fields fare better. "Some programs are falling away, some are pushing ahead based on the economy."

Lum is trying to find ways to pay for the supplies and better equipment for the laboratory component at UC Berkeley. Most of the equipment and materials he works with now are donations and cast-offs from better-endowed private companies.

"I'm looking forward to what they're going to add to the program, that to me is really exciting," said Bush. Verma echoed her sentiments. "A year-long program is better, there's a chance to do more hands-on work."

"The more you learn, the more employable you are," Bush added. "Also, for me, it brought up my self-esteem. I didn't know I could do that. I'm ready to go off of it and learn more.

"I feel like if I did this, I can do anything."

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