In trade publications, in the media, and within the life sciences industry itself, there is a lot of handwringing about the shortage of skilled workers—and how that will impact the development of new therapies and local economies. Headlines such as “Life Science Industry Threatened by Skills Shortage,” Skills Shortage: An Imminent Threat to Life Sciences Innovation,” “A Worker Shortage for Life Sciences,” paint a dire picture for the industry’s future, although for job seekers it may seem a good opportunity.
Unfortunately, however, mergers, outsourcing of manufacturing to lower-cost countries under the guise of “synergies,” and a hostile political climate have resulted in layoffs at pharmaceutical and biotech companies large and small, including Amgen, Merck and even 23andMe as interest in genetic testing wanes.
Imagine the confusion this scenario—jobs available but perhaps not for long—could cause for a college student when it’s time to choose a major. The uncertainty is just one reason students are choosing to study technology over science. Another is that science is perceived as more difficult and less trendy. As well, advanced degrees are usually required as entry points.
The drug substance developers, pharmaceutical companies, vendors and consulting firms comprising the industry are struggling to change those perceptions. How can we get young people to aspire to join the industry we love for its fulfilling and usually long-lasting jobs?
To be sure various remedies have been offered. Among them are apprenticeships, creating greater awareness of life science jobs, and even teaching soft skills, such as communications, to scientists to encourage greater sociability in the workplace.
Five longer-term solutions
These are certainly all good suggestions, and I would propose to add the following five longer-term solutions.
- Start conversations about life science jobs at a much younger age. Waiting until students reach college to introduce them to potential careers in life sciences if often too late. We need to start in middle and high school, with the goal of encouraging students to take the high school math and science courses needed to get those high-paying, satisfying jobs in life sciences. We have to acknowledge that the path will require more work during their high school years, but show them it’s worth the effort, providing youngsters a lifetime of opportunity. Given that knowledge, many more students might want to weigh the satisfaction of curing cancer or stomping out a rare disease versus programming yet another app.
- Make public schools accountable for achieving pre-set performance goals in STEM education as a contingency for state funding. In Massachusetts, where Seqens North America is located, we missed an opportunity. The legislature gave $1.5B to public schools—without asking for any accountability, without performance requirements. Consequently, even though the schools have more money we will likely continue to have failing schools in urban areas and a huge gap in educational achievement between inner city schools and those located in wealthy suburbs. I’m not convinced that the kids in Lexington are any smarter than those in Lawrence. If funding had been tied to promoting sciences and math, we would give more inner-city kids greater opportunity to explore life sciences, and be able to hire locally.
- Close the gap between failing urban schools and the wealthy suburbs. There is bipartisan support to lift the cap on charter schools, which outperform public schools. Let’s not let the unions stand in the way. According to an article in Forbes, charter schools’ formula of autonomy, accountability, diversity of learning models, choice and operation by nonprofits has produced “impressive” student gains, particularly in schools with high-minority, economically disadvantaged populations. The article cites The Progressive Policy Institute’s analysis of state exam scores in Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles. It shows that public charter schools outperformed both traditional public and in-district autonomous schools on standardized tests in three of the four cities studied. Let’s do the right thing and give these kids a fair shake at a promising future that includes positive exposure to STEM.
- Offer incentives. State institutions of higher education, in partnership with life science industry organizations, should consider subsidies or reduced tuitions for science and STEM majors. Although many companies provide tuition assistance, in my opinion the work force has changed greatly in the last few years, giving pause. It is so fluid now. A company can spend $40K to send someone to school only to have that person accept another job for a $5K salary increase. It seems fewer workers exhibit the loyalty to companies that have invested in them than was the case a few years ago. This isn’t as much of a problem for larger companies as it is for smaller and mid-sized organizations, who are making educational assistance conditional. Conditions, however, are negative. We need to realize two things: that college costs a fortune, and that this is a state-wide, if not a country-wide problem. States and perhaps the federal government too, in conjunction with trade associations, could create funds to subsidized tuitions for chemistry, biology or microbiology majors to create the skilled workers needed.
- Put less emphasis on pedigree. How important is a Ph.D.? We need to rethink the price of entry into our chosen field. It now requires a B.S., then 5-6 more years for a Ph.D., followed by a post-doc. That’s a minimum of 10 years in academia. Having put in the time ourselves we’re reluctant to short-circuit that trajectory. But we have to. In the tech world students can go straight from college—if they finish at all —into a reasonably high-paying job. Why can’t we have more entry-level positions? Those with aptitude will learn in our labs and manufacturing plants. As well, it’s likely individuals who are motivated to advance in the field will seek those advanced degrees, but let’s first get them into our plants where they can experience the variety of rewarding careers in life sciences.
This is an important topic, one we’ve been talking about for the past couple of years. We’re open to hearing suggestions from others as well as resumes from qualified job candidates.