Several weeks ago, MassBioEd, the sister organization of MassBio that focuses on workforce development, released its Annual Massachusetts Life Sciences Employment Report. The 60-page report offers a look into the local industry’s impressive history of growth over the past decade while putting the past year under the microscope. The report paints a clear picture of an industry that’s growing faster than the workforce that maintains it—an issue that has become abundantly clear over the past several years. It’s an issue that doesn’t just impact one subsector of the industry—it reaches across verticals, impacting the most junior positions through the most senior leadership roles.

While we’ve made incredible strides in the name of science, we have not done the same for science education. The consequence is that the Massachusetts life sciences industry does not have enough workers to maintain the level of growth it’s experiencing, and the concern is real.   As recruiters, we are on the front lines of this issue. It’s a challenge that we face daily with all clients and all roles, giving us a unique vantage point.

MassBioEd offers a multi-pronged approach to remedy the issue, with the understanding there is no quick fix. The talent shortage is a deep-seated issue that requires far-reaching support.  For that reason, report author Karla Talanian, MassBioEd’s Director of Talent & Workforce Development, encourages readers to engage in conversation on “how to grow our talent pipeline and maintain the rate of advancement in the life sciences.”

A few things to note. The report talks about life sciences employment, it’s not just talking about people working directly for biopharma companies (industry jobs). It’s also talking about employees that focus on life sciences in academia, corporations, or clinical labs (non-industry life sciences jobs). The research is primarily based on 2018 data, unless otherwise noted.

The Facts: There are many variables that have led to the life sciences talent shortage in the US and in Massachusetts. In order to fully understand the scope of the issue, we have highlighted 10 key facts from the report along with some additional research.

  • Fact 1: The effect of the life sciences on the overall labor economy is 2.5 times greater for Massachusetts than the next closest states.
    • How is this calculated? The data compares the number of advertised jobs with every 10,000 employed persons in the state. For every 10,000 employed persons in Massachusetts, there were 108 non-industry life science jobs posted in 2018. The runner up was Maryland with 42. For industry jobs the number was 80 jobs, and the runner up was New Jersey with 33.
  • Fact 2: The past decade has seen a 35% increase in life sciences employment in Massachusetts with the most growth being in R&D (up 53%).
    • For comparison purposes, in the past decade overall employment in Massachusetts has risen by 12%. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Fact 3: Job growth in the industry is projected to keep rising over the next 5 years–12,000 new jobs. That’s up from 74,000 total jobs today, which gives us 86,000 total jobs by 2024.
  • Fact 4: Data from The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) says that between 2009 and 2015, U.S. elementary and middle school students have only somewhat increased in proficiency in science, and high school students have pretty much stayed the same in proficiency. In essence, U.S. students are not receiving better preparation to pursue scientific careers.
  • Fact 5: Since 2010 the demand for High School and Associate level candidates in the life sciences has significantly increased both Nationwide and in Massachusetts (128% and 140%, respectively). Yet the number of community college graduates has not increased.
  • Fact 6: The demand for Bachelor level candidates in the life sciences has also steadily increased since 2010, yet lately the number of college graduates has become stagnant. Note that between 2010 and 2017 this number was steadily increasing.
    • The other issue is that while the number of students studying life sciences related majors has increased, it’s still nowhere near the demand.
    • And the other issue with this subsector is that many students with science related majors do not choose life sciences related career paths, rather they go into computer science or healthcare.
  • Fact 7: The trend continues at the Master’s level, where the demand far outweighs the supply. For this subsector, the number of students pursuing STEM related degrees has significantly increased, but these students still make up such a small number of students pursuing degrees at the Master’s level.
  • Fact 8: The industry is reliant upon doctoral level candidates to take on leadership roles, but the number of graduates pursuing the PhD level course of study is projected to remain the same if not possibly decline.
  • Fact 9: Foreign-born talent plays an important role in Science & Engineering Occupations in the US. In 2016, 23.3% of employees in those occupations were foreign-born (v. 29.5% in Massachusetts).
  • Fact 10: The report also featured the results from a comprehensive employment survey of life science companies of all sizes in Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, most respondents said that competition was their biggest obstacle in hiring and retaining talent.

The Good News

Before we go further into what appears to be a grim outlook, let’s take a step back to think about the bigger picture. The talent shortage is happening, in part, because the life sciences industry is growing so quickly.  Growth in the life science industry means more lives saved, healthier people, longer lives.  And even better news–Massachusetts is at the helm.

CBRE’s US Life Sciences Clusters Report states that Boston-Cambridge is the leading life science market in the nation.  MassBio’s Life Science Industry Snapshot offers a few other bragging points:

  • Four of the top five NIH funded hospitals are here in Massachusetts.
  • $4.8B in venture capital investments were made in Massachusetts life science in 2018 (an increase by five-fold since 2009).
  • 18 life science IPOs in 2018 were headquartered in Massachusetts.
  • Massachusetts researchers are currently researching or developing products for over 400 medical indications.

The digital revolution has propelled the industry even further over the last two decades. With the introduction of new modalities, the industry is on pace to continue its rapid growth here in Massachusetts and across the U.S….unless there aren’t enough workers.

The Bad News

If the talent shortage continues, then that rapid pace of discovering cures and sending therapies to market will surely slow down.

The authors of the MA Life Sciences Report offer the following warning:

“In short, there is no end in sight to the talent shortage when only traditional means of preparing tomorrow’s workforce are utilized. The future of this industry depends on a robust pipeline of talented and passionate people to make the next generation of scientific discoveries and technical breakthroughs.”

The Action Steps

The report does not end there. The authors provide clear action steps to help remedy the issue. The following recommendations were made:

  • Strengthening partnerships between industry and academia to help bridge the gap between what students learn and what employers are seeking.
  • Generating more awareness around the industry early on in students’ academic careers.
  • Creating more opportunities in industry exploration for college students studying a science-related field.
  • Providing more support to pre-and postdoctoral students, who often struggle transitioning between academia and industry.
  • Offering more professional development opportunities to existing employees.
  • Strengthening workers’ soft skills, which do not always come naturally to scientists.
  • Implementing different types of training methods that cater to non-traditional workers.

Also, just a note that while not identified under the list of recommendations the report does also say that we must continue to support immigration so that foreign-born workers can grow the workforce.

The report makes it clear that there is a real need to create more awareness around the industry at all levels. In The Boston Globe’s coverage of the report, Jonathan Saltzman hones in on the lack of exposure at the high school level. There is also a glaring need to pursue non-traditional training and development methods, a topic that was recently explored in depth by Biospace. The article offers an extensive list of ways for life science workers to enhance their professional development.

For an industry that is making such strides in technology, it’s being lagging in workforce development. The Baker Administration is addressing these concerns in its latest economic development plan. The plan focuses on workforce development and calls for steps to build on the growth in several sectors including life sciences and healthcare. Organizations like MassBioEd and Science Club for Girls are also working hard to be part of the solution.  Still, there is more to be done.

Our Take

As recruiters, we are conduits between these employers struggling to find the best talent and the talent pool. Our job is to not just place candidates into somewhat suitable roles; we want to make the best match for both client and candidate. Yet, with the narrow pool of candidates that can be a challenge.

In fact, we have people on staff whose entire job is to scour the web to widen that pool—they’re called sourcers. We do have a vast database of candidates who submit their resumes through our website and other sources, but still many of the jobs we are tasked with filling are extremely specialized. Thus, we look to our data wizards (the sourcers) to identify appropriate candidates with Boolean searches, plug-ins, and other complex methods. Through these methodologies and other candidate search tactics we’re able to find candidates who aren’t actively applying to jobs or candidates who may not have put the full extent of their experience on LinkedIn.

There’s no guarantee we can find local candidates, so sometimes we are quite literally plucking candidates from their lab elsewhere in the US to fill a role here in Massachusetts. Since life sciences isn’t exactly the most remote-friendly work, employers are then faced with providing relocation packages. For some of our smaller clients, it can be hard to compete with the larger companies in this area.

We’re also seeing more candidates have two or three good offers to choose from, which means our clients need to sell their company as a great place to work.  Again, this can be a challenge for some of the smaller companies who can’t offer the same benefits as larger ones can. Those smaller employers try to emphasize culture and hope that they can bring someone on board who really believes in the mission.

The need for stronger connections between academia and industry, and better career development is apparent in our everyday work. We see everything from poorly formatted resumes and ill-prepared interviewees to talented scientists simply lacking direction—all shortcomings that could be solved with some of the solutions mentioned in the report.

We have a unique vantage point of the industry and it’s pretty clear the talent shortage and the lack of industry exposure is causing a strain not just here in Massachusetts, but all across the U.S. We will work hard to be a part of the solution by continuing to speak about scientific career paths, by volunteering with science education programs, and by being an advocate for the industry in our professional and personal circles. What will you do to help? Let us know!