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Nature of the Work
* Science technicians in production jobs often work in 8 hour shifts around the clock.
* Job opportunities are expected to be very good for qualified graduates of science technician training programs or applied science technology programs who are well-trained on equipment used in laboratories and production facilities.
Science technicians use the principles and theories of science and mathematics to solve problems in research and development and to help invent and improve products and processes. However, their jobs are more practically oriented than those of scientists. Technicians set up, operate, and maintain laboratory instruments, monitor experiments, make observations, calculate and record results, and often develop conclusions. Those who work in production monitor manufacturing processes and may be involved in quality control, testing products for proper proportions of ingredients, purity, or for strength and durability.
As laboratory instrumentation and procedures have become more complex in recent years, the role of science technicians in research and development has expanded. In addition to performing routine tasks, many technicians also develop and adapt laboratory procedures to achieve the best results, interpret data, and devise solutions to problems, under the direction of scientists. The increasing use of robotics to perform many routine tasks has freed technicians to operate more sophisticated laboratory equipment. Science technicians make extensive use of computers, computer-interfaced equipment, robotics, and high-technology industrial applications such as biological engineering.
Most science technicians specialize, learning skills and working in the same disciplines as scientists. Occupational titles, therefore, tend to follow the same structure as scientists. Agricultural technicians work with agricultural scientists in food, fiber, and animal research, production, and processing. Some conduct tests and experiments to improve the yield and quality of crops or to increase the resistance of plants and animals to disease, insects, or other hazards. Other agricultural technicians do animal breeding and nutrition work.
Biological technicians work with biologists studying living organisms. They may assist scientists who conduct medical research, helping to find a cure for cancer or AIDS, for example. Those who work in pharmaceutical companies help develop and manufacture medicinal and pharmaceutical preparations. Those working in the field of microbiology generally work as lab assistants, studying living organisms and infectious agents. Biological technicians also analyze organic substances such as blood, food, and drugs, and some examine evidence in criminal investigations. Biological technicians working in biotechnology labs use the knowledge and techniques gained from basic research by scientists, including gene splicing and recombinant DNA, and apply these techniques in product development.
Chemical technicians work with chemists and chemical engineers, developing and using chemicals and related products and equipment. Most do research and development, testing, or other laboratory work. For example, they might test packaging for design, integrity of materials, and environmental acceptability; assemble and operate new equipment to develop new products; monitor product quality; or develop new production techniques. Some chemical technicians collect and analyze samples of air and water to monitor pollution levels. Those who focus on basic research might produce compounds through complex organic synthesis. Chemical technicians within chemical plants are also referred to as process technicians. They may operate equipment, monitor plant processes and analyze plant materials.
Environmental technicians may perform laboratory and field tests to monitor environmental resources and determine the contaminants and sources of pollution. They may collect samples for testing or be involved in abating, controlling, or remediating sources of environmental pollutants. They may be responsible for waste management operations, control and management of hazardous materials inventory, or general activities involving regulatory compliance. There is a growing emphasis on pollution prevention activities.
Nuclear technicians operate nuclear test and research equipment, monitor radiation, and assist nuclear engineers and physicists in research. Some also operate remote control equipment to manipulate radioactive materials or materials to be exposed to radioactivity.
Petroleum technicians measure and record physical and geologic conditions in oil or gas wells using instruments lowered into wells or by analysis of the mud from wells. In oil and gas exploration, they collect and examine geological data or test geological samples to determine petroleum and mineral content. Some petroleum technicians, called scouts, collect information about oil and gas well drilling operations, geological and geophysical prospecting, and land or lease contracts.
Other science technicians collect weather information or assist oceanographers.
Science technicians work under a wide variety of conditions. Most work indoors, usually in laboratories, and have regular hours. Some occasionally work irregular hours to monitor experiments that can't be completed during regular working hours. Production technicians often work in 8 hour shifts around the clock. Others, such as agricultural, petroleum, and environmental technicians, perform much of their work outdoors, sometimes in remote locations.
Some science technicians may be exposed to hazards from equipment, chemicals, or toxic materials. Chemical technicians sometimes work with toxic chemicals or radioactive isotopes; nuclear technicians may be exposed to radiation; and biological technicians sometimes work with disease-causing organisms or radioactive agents. However, there is little risk if proper safety procedures are followed.
Science technicians held about 228,000 jobs in 1996. Over 35 percent worked in manufacturing, mostly in the chemical industry, but also in the food processing industry. About 16 percent worked in education services and another 15 percent worked in research and testing services. In 1996, the Federal Government employed about 16,000 science technicians, mostly in the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Interior.
There are several ways to qualify for a job as a science technician. Most employers prefer applicants who have at least 2 years of specialized training or an associate degree in applied science or science related technology. Because employer's preferences vary, however, many science technicians may actually have a bachelor's degree in chemistry or biology, or have taken several science and math courses at 4-year colleges.
Many technical and community colleges offer associate degrees in a specific technology or a more general education in science and mathematics. A number of 2-year associate degree programs are designed to provide easy transfer to a 4-year college or university if desired. Technical institutes generally offer technician training, but provide less theory and general education than technical or community colleges. The length of programs at technical institutes varies, although 1-year certificate programs and 2-year associate degree programs are common. Some schools offer cooperative-education or internship programs, allowing students the opportunity to work at a local company or other workplace while attending classes in alternate terms. Participation in such programs can significantly enhance a student's employment prospects.
Persons interested in careers as science technicians should take as many high school science and math courses as possible. Science courses taken beyond high school, in an associate's or bachelor's program, should be laboratory oriented, with an emphasis on "bench" skills. Because computers and computer-interfaced equipment are often used in research and development laboratories, technicians should have strong computer skills. Communication skills are also important; technicians are often required to report their findings both verbally and in writing. Technicians should also be able to work well with others because teamwork is common.
Prospective science technicians may acquire good career preparation through 2-year formal training programs that combine the teaching of scientific principles and theory with practical hands-on application in a laboratory setting with up-to-date equipment. Graduates of 4-year bachelor's degree programs in science who have considerable experience in laboratory-based courses, have completed internships, or held summer jobs in laboratories, are also well-qualified for science technician positions and are preferred by some employers. However, those with a bachelor's degree who accept technician jobs generally cannot find employment that utilizes their advanced academic education.
Technicians usually begin work as trainees in routine positions under the direct supervision of a scientist or a more experienced technician. Job candidates whose training or educational background encompasses extensive hands-on experience with a variety of laboratory equipment, including computers and related equipment, usually require a much shorter period of on-the-job training. As they gain experience, technicians take on more responsibility and carry out assignments under only general supervision, and some eventually become supervisors.
Employment of science technicians is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2006. Continued growth of scientific and medical research, and development and the production of technical products should stimulate demand for science technicians in all areas. In particular, the growing number of agricultural and medicinal products developed using biotechnology techniques will increase the need for biological technicians. Employment growth will also be fueled by demand for technicians to help regulate waste products, collect air, water, and soil samples to measure levels of pollutants, monitor compliance with environmental regulations, and clean up contaminated sites. However, growth will be moderated somewhat by an expected slowdown in overall employment in the chemical industry.
Job opportunities are expected to be very good for qualified graduates of science technician training programs or applied science technology programs who are well-trained on equipment used in industrial and government laboratories and production facilities. As the instrumentation and techniques used in industrial research, development, and production become more complex, employers are seeking well trained individuals with highly developed technical and communication skills. In addition to opportunities created by growth, many job openings should arise from the need to replace technicians who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.
Median annual earnings of science technicians were about $27,000 in 1996; the middle 50 percent earned between $19,800 and $37,100. Ten percent earned less than $15,500, and 10 percent earned over $49,500. Median annual earnings were about $31,100 for chemical technicians and about $25,200 for biological technicians in 1996.
In the Federal Government in 1997, science technicians started at $15,500, $17,400, or $19,500, depending on education and experience. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level was higher. The average annual salary for biological science technicians in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions employed by the Federal Government in early 1997 was $28,500; for mathematical technicians, $34,870; for physical science technicians, $35,890; for geodetic technicians, $45,050; for hydrologic technicians, $33,230; and for meteorologic technicians, $41,460.
Other technicians who apply scientific principles at a level usually taught in 2-year associate degree programs include engineering technicians, broadcast technicians, drafters, and health technologists and technicians. Some of the work of agricultural and biological technicians is related to that in agriculture and forestry occupations.
For information about a career as a chemical technician, contact:
American Chemical Society, Education Division, Career Publications, 1155 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Homepage: http://www.acs.org
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