Workforce shortages in biotechnology, part I. Why is this a problem?

Workforce shortages are a growing problem in the biotech industry. Communities are concerned that a lack of trained workers will either keep companies away or cause companies to move. If companies do have to move, it's likely those jobs might be lost forever, never to return. According to Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, now a professor at UC-Berkeley, biotech companies that can't hire in the U.S. will recruit foreign workers or open research centers overseas (Luke Timmerman, Seattle PI).

The reason for concern is that biotech jobs, in general, are pretty good. They pay well and people work in a nice environment. A 2006 study by Batelle (this is a pdf file) found that the average biotech job pays $65,775 a year, compared with $39,003 in the overall private sector. Often, companies also help fund continuing education and options for advancement.

Many people working in biotech companies also enjoy the work because they know their products can help people. I don't know if other companies do this, but Immunex used to give everyone in the company a chance to read thank-you letters from patients who were helped by Enbrel®. These are jobs that we don't want to lose.

If the jobs are so great, why is there a shortage of employees?
First, the number of students graduating with science degrees, who are ready to enter the workforce, is too small. A 2005 NSF study (cited by the Seattle PI) found that the number of students graduating with science and engineering degrees isn't increasing at the same rate as the number of jobs. In fact, the numbers are still about the same as they were a decade ago, with only 12 percent of college graduates entering science and engineering fields. According to the Boston Globe, only 5.4 percent of the bachelors degrees in 2005, in Massachusetts, were related to the life sciences. A further problem, is that many of the students, who are graduating with science degrees, do not have the hands-on lab skills that are needed in the companies. Those students end up in community college biotech programs finishing another year or two of school before they can go find a job.

Are we suffering from educational blindspots?

Cliff Mintz writes that the workforce shortage shouldn't be a surprise.

Despite what the experts and pundits would have you believe, the etiology of the workforce shortages in the life sciences industry is easy to decipher. Put simply, most universities and colleges don't believe that job training or career development should be part of their academic initiatives or educational missions. Likewise, companies don't feel that education or training should fall within their purview-according to industry executives, college and professional school graduates ought to be sufficiently prepared to enter the workforce after they complete their education.

Cliff says, and many community college instructors would agree, that undergraduate institutions are simply not teaching the right things.

Why about reverse articulation?
Community colleges have proven that given the chance, they can do a wonderful job with training students for careers in biotechnology. But, right now, it's clear that they are not educating enough students to meet industry's needs.

Why not?
The numbers of students entering biotech programs is too small. A large fraction of community college programs struggle with low enrollments. When I taught in the Seattle Central Community College biotech program, we had this challenge, too. The students that we got were great, but like many other community colleges, most of our students were older and sometimes over half of them already had bachelors' degrees. This phenomenon is so common that colleges have a name for it: "reverse articulation."

Get your biology degree at a University then go to a community college to learn job skills.

This situation is great for community college instructors and I liked it quite a bit. The students were mature, smart and motivated. They had good attitudes and wanted jobs. They already knew much of the theory behind our labs and they were successful, many did get those jobs. I enjoyed teaching them and I know instructors at other schools who felt the same way. But worried about my non-degreed students. Some of them spent too much time comparing themselves to the large number of semi-graduate students and I think this may have increased our attrition rates higher than they should have been.

Why isn't reverse articulation the answer?
Despite the wonderful features of reverse articulation —; motivated, mature students —; this route will never produce produce graduates in large enough numbers to meet the needs of the biotech industry. The pool of potential students is just too small.

Even though community college tuition is low, it's too expensive to ask a large number of students to spend an extra year or two going to school to learn lab techniques. Also many jobs in biotech don't even require a bachelor's degree much less a bachelor's degree and two more years of school, as long as a student knows how to do a certain number of lab things - like tissue culture, sterile technique, pipetting, and making media. Certainly, the industry is missing out on talented people who would be well-served by a community college education and a more direct path into the workforce. In theory, students shouldn't have needed to spend 6 yrs sorting out their lives and attending two colleges before getting a job.

Part II. How do we connect community colleges with a larger market?

To be posted soon.


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I can do tissue culture, sterile technique, pipetting, and making media... will you pay me $65,000/year?

I remember being rather disappointed that in college you pretty much had to choose between "classes that prepare you for the workplace" and "classes for grad school". Really, it should have been possible to do *both* effectively in a single degree.

I'm at a software company, so those aren't skills that we need. You could make that at a biotech company. Your salary would depend on your responsibilities.

It is too bad that your college considered the classes to be on different tracks. Grad students do technical work, too, and it wouldn't hurt them to know how to do lab work properly or to have some preparation that would give them a back-up plan in case grad school doesn't work out.

Maybe the U.S. shouldn't be quite so obsessively tight-fisted about immigration then? I mean, I'm job-hunting in that sort of area myself at the moment, and there are hundreds of U.S. jobs I could apply for, but even though I'm from Britain - allegedly an American ally - there's a ridiculous catch-22 situation where I can't apply for most jobs without having a work visa, and I can't get the work visa without having the job. If you really want your companies to keep up with the rest of the world, start exploiting a more diverse pool of talent.

Long term obviously you need to look at trends in education, but it's irrelevent trying to train kids for jobs that might not exist in ten years time because of a dearth of talent now.

If I might inteject. It's still much easier for me (as an Indian citizen) to work in the US than most other countries, so while immigration policies have become a lot more painful since I first came here more than a decade ago, it's still the place to come.

That said, the world has changed. The immigration policies need to evolve accordingly.

My concern is that we are not preparing people for life in industry. Our system is meant to create academic researchers, and working in industry can be almost a culture shock to some along with the gap in skills and other soft areas of knowledge required.

I find this post intriguing because, as a graduate student who is looking for employment, I've had a very hard time coming across jobs that interest me. Everything I see is contract work, or some big pharma company that I don't agree with on a moral level. Perhaps I'm just too picky?
I do think that many companies do a poor job of advertising their openings in a way that is easily indexed by those of us looking for employment. Your own company, for instance (GeoSpiza) for some time has only had one opening advertised on their website, for a non-science position (I've been checking!). As of today there are no specific openings listed, merely a request to "send your resume" (into a black hole, if prior experience with other companies is any guide). This is not unusual... Often I've sent in an application and been told "oh we're not offering that position anymore", or sent in a resume and never heard back at all. If the companies are truly hurting for workers, they aren't treating prospective candidates like it.

This is a good discussion. The problem is that universities only want to train PhDs. Too many recent bachelors graduates receive the wrong advice to go after a PhD rather than a masters. Obtaining a masters in 2 years would probably suit many people. Their job prospects would improve and they would have greater flexibility in their career path. I have a bachelors and regret now that I don't have at least a masters. But, being in sales and marketing has now given me the chance to make about as much as many PhDs. The initial pay from a masters is lower but you can easily reach a PhD salary if you work hard and are willing to change jobs early in your career.

On the other hand, you can't even apply for some positions without a PhD + a postdoc, especially research positions.

I think it depends on what you want to do. Personally, I loved my PhD. You don't get that kind of growth as a researcher without one (only a few might). It also opened doors for me on the marketing/BD side over time, which would have been tougher to achieve without.

In the end, I think there should be more options, not the single track that seems to be the current case.

Okay, one thing I missed communicating here - and I will cover in the next post - is that these are technician jobs. The biotech industry needs technicians.

For the most part, people with Ph.D.s don't work well in technician positions because they aren't happy with technician positions - an observation that shouldn't surprise anyone - I think.

As far as our company, we are a software company, not a biotech company and our manpower needs are lower than those in biotech. And, it does help if you can use capital letters correctly when you write our name.

I truly didn't mean offense, either by mis-capitalizing the company name or by seeming to single you out as a particularly "bad" example. The point I was making was simply that I think many companies could do a better job of updating and maintaining the openings they have available on their public sites. For instance, I've heard from friends inside a certain company that they are looking for "a lot of people", but if I go to that company's site, there are no listings. I'm aware of intramural hiring and things like this, but it still seems like there is a bit of a disconnect. Even in cases where a company might keep the list of positions updated, they are often difficult to search.

I think that the idea that Ph.D.s are dissatisfied in tech positions is somewhat valid, although I also hold the view that an engaged mentor could manage to keep a Ph.D. happy in such a role. It might be a bit more managerial/personality work on the part of the boss, but at the same time you hopefully also have some benefits of another Ph.D. in the group as well.

Hi PA,

No offense taken. You bring up a very interesting point, though, that deserves it's own post - and that is - how do companies find and recruit employees?

You think companies recruit people from their web sites. I think that depends on the company.

I suppose I'm just on the leading edges of the generation which feels like everything takes place on the internet :)

I'm interested in reading your follow-on posts to this one! I'm trying to organize my own thoughts as well.

One thing I'd like your input on, if you have a chance is this: Many industries employ "Scientists" - that is, Ph.D.-educated researchers. In an environment in which they can't find enough B.S./M.S. candidates to fill technician positions, why not hire more entry-level Scientists from the pool of un(der)employed Ph.D.s? Is it simply a salary issue? Organizational concerns? I feel like the technician responsibilities could be slightly tweaked to a task more "fitting" of someone with a higher degree, and at least then it's a win-win situation.

Okay - here's one thing to consider -

Companies describe anyone who is working in lab as a "Scientist."

A scientist position in a company may or may not require a Ph.D.

This is a problem in areas outside of biotechnology. There are just not enough schools teaching the basics. While I resided in Oklahoma, they did not have a Clincal Laboratory Sciences/Medical Technology program at a single state educational institution. Instead, you had to apply to the hospital which then did the training/education. That is a hugely ineffective way of going about business, especially considering the level of open positions in Medical Technology across the country.

PA: "Many industries employ "Scientists" - that is, Ph.D.-educated researchers. In an environment in which they can't find enough B.S./M.S. candidates to fill technician positions, why not hire more entry-level Scientists from the pool of un(der)employed Ph.D.s?"

As a non-PhD what I faced in the past is serious competition in industry from the glut of PhD's! Many apply for jobs clearly designed for undergrad or master degree candidates, and what PI doesn't want an employee with "more" training? I am now out of the labs, having had more opportunity in industry to move around and test other options.

On another note - maybe times have changed significantly from when I got my degree (1985), or maybe I was lucky to attend a better university - but in my mind it is not a good science education without good opportunity for lab classes. Also, university does not train you for any specific job in (almost) any field - why should science be different and suddenly have the 'vocational' obligation that business, language, literature, etc. do not have?

Hi GD:

What happens when PhD's apply for non-PhD types of jobs? That will be the subject of part III.

I agree with you that a good science education should include good lab courses. Unfortunately, lab courses are more expensive and sometimes they're the courses that get cut. We had lots of students come to our biotech program who had bachelor's degrees in biology but they couldn't find work because they didn't have the hands-on lab skills.

As far as the vocational slant, I graduated from college a couple of years before you did. At that time, there weren't jobs in biology. My classmates either went to medical school or found something else to do. A few probably went to graduate school, but not many.

Times have changed, though. First, science has become a vocation. The rise of the biotechnology industry has changed the situation dramatically and created lots of jobs that didn't exist at that time. Second, college costs much more than it used to. A year at a private college costs about $35,000 and the average student graduates $20,000 in debt from student loans. Students have a more urgent need to find work when they're finished and pay back loans.

I didn't go straight from my B.S. to industry - it was not an option I was even aware of at the time (if it existed), but I spent 10 years working in academic labs. I must say, I loved those jobs. But, in 1995 we moved and I tried to find a job at a nearby university by NIH/NSF budget cuts were killing grant monies, so I ended up in industry. The change in pay scale was absolutely shocking (50% increase). I also noticed that new graduates were much more aware and more saavy about entering industry than I was, and I had a harder time getting my foot in the door. Now, another 13yrs later - they are smarter about these job options than ever. It is very different to interview for a job in industry than it is to interview for a job in academic research (unless this has changed a LOT since my last experience).
Still - I don't think that universities need to become vocational schools, but they sure could do a much better job of career counseling and development than what I experienced many years ago (non-existant). Science programs can also change their curriculum to include undergrad "rotations" or "seminars" in faculty labs to supplement whatever lab class training they can afford to offer.
Industry could also become more realistic about their expectations when hiring new technicians. Even if you have done a protocol in a class setting, it is not like you really know how to do it on your own, or done in that model or commercial system, on that brand of equipment, with that manager breathing down your neck, and troubleshoot it, etc. In other words, industry has to accept that there will be some on the job training for just about anyone they hire at almost any level.

You are correct about universities when it comes to training graduates for the job market. I know that the majority of life science students at one large state university are not able to acquire the laboratory training and have to attend a local community college for this training. In fact, to run one gel at this large university, students have to work as a group and each student takes a turn doing a step in the procedure. Obviously, this is not the best training technique. This indicates to me that large universities are not able to or are not willing to spend much time in teaching students the laboratory skills needed to land a job. Whichever reason it may be, universities have to respond to this industrial need. However, before anyone makes the comment, I do realize that some students may actually acquire these skills at these large universities. Unfortunately, the majority of these students are not so lucky.

I am the Program Director for Biotechnology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Our university is one of a handful of small upper-level universities that still exist in the USA. Students from local community colleges complete their junior, senior and graduate work at our university. When I came here in 1999, upper-level laboratory training was nonexistent. When I identified this as problem to non-science faculty, I actually had some faculty tell me that teaching practical skills for future jobs was not the responsibility of a university. I was completely dumbfounded that some university faculty were still retaining this archaic point of view.

Fortunately, my Science colleagues, Program chair, School Dean, Provost and University President did not share in this belief and they have fully supported the transformation of our life sciences into a program that combines theory with practical laboratory training. We now have an undergraduate Biotech certificate that has students enrolling into seven laboratories (e.g., Molecular Biology/DNA lab, Tissue Culture, Laboratory for Biotechnology, Eukaryotic Gene Expression/RNA lab, Ecotilling, Independent Research and others). Since we are a small university, we believe that our students have to have this training in order to compete against students coming from larger, well known universities. As a result, our students are succeeding in the job market. In fact, there are a couple of local Biotech companies that prefer our graduates over the larger university for the above reasons.

Recently, we have taken this practical training into a Master of Science in Biotechnology. In this M.S. program, all students are required to take two semesters of laboratory training and, if not pursuing a thesis, are encouraged to enroll in two additional semesters of independent research. This M.S. in Biotechnology is the only one in Texas that has the following three concentrations: Molecular Biotechnology, Bioinformatics/Computational Biology and Biotechnology Management & Marketing. To further enhance this program, we have been approaching local Biotech companies to line up Internships and work Co-ops for our undergraduate and graduate students. We are confident that students from this brand new program will be very successful.

In conclusion, if my comments sound like an advertisement, please accept my apologies. I am just very enthusiastic about our program and I want you and your readers to know that there are universities responding to the needs of the Biotech industry. I look forward to any comments or suggestions that y'all might have.

By Larry Rohde (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

GD: to quote part of your comment:

Industry could also become more realistic about their expectations when hiring new technicians. Even if you have done a protocol in a class setting, it is not like you really know how to do it on your own...

That is a difference between the community college programs and many universities. The community college programs do have students repeat procedures enough times so that they know what they're doing when they get an industry job.

Larry: It's nice to hear that there are institutions out there, like yours, that give some thought to the work that students might do after they graduate. Your program sounds great.