Workforce shortages in biotechnology, part II. How do we fill the pipeline?

In part I, I wrote about the shortage of technicians in the biotechnology industry and the general awareness that this problem is getting worse. This part will address the challenge of getting more students into programs that will prepare them for jobs in the biotech field. I've also been asked to write a bit more about finding jobs in companies, that post will be a bit later. Before proceeding, there are two points that need a bit of discussion. The first point is the whether there's a shortage at all and the second applies to the kind of shortage.

It's hard to see the forest when you're deep in the woods

Biotech workforce shortages are not distributed evenly. When you live in an area where companies are laying off large numbers of people, the idea of a shortage is a bit difficult to accept. Certainly, the people in Rhode Island might be skeptical. When a large employer like Amgen cut 20% of the local work force last fall, 300 people ended up on the streets looking for work.

These kinds of events and the uncertainty in the biotech field make it challenging for community colleges with biotech programs to enthusiastically sell the programs or work hard to recruit new students. Consequently, when I write about workforce shortages, keep in mind those shortages are found in areas, like California, Boston, and North Carolina. Areas like Seattle, where the main emphasis is on research, don't employee as many people. The companies who are involved in biotech manufacturing are the ones with the greater workforce needs.

Shortage of what?
The other point that needs clarification is the type of person who's in demand. When the biotech companies say there's a workforce shortage, they mean that there's a shortage of skilled technicians, particularly in manufacturing. It's a bit funny and maybe a bit sad, that when reporters say that there's a shortage of scientists, some people interpret this as a shortage of Ph.D. level investigators. In industry, the word "scientist" has a broader meaning. In academics, you're only considered a scientist if you have a Ph.D., in industry, you're a scientist if science is what you're doing. Technicians with 2 year community college degrees (and sometimes a 4 year degree, too) are the people who are in demand.

"Biotechnology? Oh, you need a Ph.D. to do that!"
Still, the misconception that you need a Ph.D. to work in a scientific field might be a problem. If the general public views science as an occupation for the elite, students might be reluctant to take science courses. In biotech, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the most successful graduates from our biotech program were students who had done poorly in their large lecture weed-them-out chemistry-type courses, but had a good grounding in common sense and an ability to work with their hands.

As I wrote before, we have lots of data showing that community colleges can teach bio-technicians the skills that they need. And, we know that those skills are needed (at least in some regions of the country). But, we also know the enrollments in biotech programs are low and the schools are not graduating students in the numbers needed by the industry.

How can we educate the trained workforce that companies need? What are some possible solutions?

Some ideas that have been discussed and sometimes tried have been these:
1. Community colleges could recruit more students by providing outreach to high schools.
2. Universities could offer more training in biotech lab skills.
3. Partnerships between colleges and community colleges

Can outreach to high schools help?
I attended a meeting recently, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC), called "Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs." During the meeting, one of the NSF program officers queried the attendees from community college biotech programs. He asked if any program had 50% or more of their students directly from high school. Only one person could answer "yes." He asked if schools had tried recruiting from the local high schools. This time everyone answered "yes."
Why then do community colleges find it so hard to recruit high schools students to their biotech programs?

This might not be a popular thing to say, but I think it's hard for community colleges to recruit high school students because the community colleges have been reaching out to the wrong high school students. I have been on advisory boards to high school programs for several years now. In my experience, the teachers who start these programs are all above average. They are highly motivated, dedicated and smart, and they do not send their students to community colleges. These programs and the teachers who run them tend to attract the best students and then send them on to four-year colleges and Universities. In my ten years running a community college biotech program, we only got one student from a high school biotech program. I support science education in any form, and I'm sure that having the community colleges work with the high schools is good for the community. But however, good hearted, these outreach efforts fail to translate into increased enrollments in the community colleges.

Would four year colleges and Universities be interested in providing job training?
Four year colleges and Universities could fill the gap and provide students with job training and more career guidance. But they don't. Some schools and faculty don't believe job training is their responsibility. Lab courses are expensive, so some Universities cut costs by cutting their lab courses. Sometimes the lab courses fail to give students much practice with skills like making solutions and buffers, making media, or culturing cells. Further, they don't always have the right equipment. Many community college programs have appropriate equipment in place - things like tissue culture hoods, fermentors, autoclaves, gel boxes, HPLC's, and pH meters- but these things aren't always available in University teaching labs.

Partnerships between community colleges and Universities
A promising path would be for Universities and community colleges to work together. The community colleges could teach the lab courses and provide hands-on practice with laboratory skills. The Universities could provide students with dual credit. I think this kind of path would benefit everyone. Universities could offer lab courses (at the community colleges) taught by experienced faculty with industry-standard equipment. Biotech companies could hire from a larger pool of skilled workers. Community college students would have an easier time transferring course credits. Of course, this path presumes that institutions are willing to work together and support the best interests of the students. This is a tough path when everyone has turf to protect.

Ultimately the best answer, I think, is to improve science and career education across the board and make all students aware of the many opportunities in scientific fields. Until that happens, we are likely to continue with this strange situation of having students spend 6 years of college preparing for entry-level jobs.


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As a working scientist (in the academic sense) not on any kind of tenure-track, there seems to be one partial solution: retrain "failed" academic researchers.

The seldom discussed reality is that academic research is an "up or out" kind of system, where you need to pass through a series of bottlenecks in competition with your peers at several levels of your career. And for each person passing through a level, you have several that don't. For each person landing a post-doc, you have a couple that don't. For each one landing a tenure-track job, you have several people that do not. For each one finally making tenure, you have many people that never will. Same thing for teaching positions. As you are no doubt well aware, a community college or junior college teaching position is far from the kind of "safety position" some academics sneer at; they are also very competitive.

While a few very talented, driven people will eventually celebrate their tenure, most researchers will at some point be face to face with their last failed grant application, see their last research employment contract end, and realize that academic research is not something they will be doing anymore. All those people still need to find gainful employment somewhere, and preferably still within their general area of competence. At that point, a technician or support job - still science-related, stable employment (gasp!) and an end to the grant application tedium - is looking very, very interesting.

But while they have the theory down just fine, some practical skills may be rather rusty or even lacking altogether. Isn't this one area where a community college could step in (preferably before the end of the line) and offer researchers the kind of practical training they are not getting as part of an academic research program?

Janne's comments are well taken, and as a correlary should also include Ph.D.s or other highly trained mid-high level professionals with successful track records finding themselves suddenly unemployed due to layoffs or company foldings. It can take months, even years sometimes, for these folks to get back into the work force, often relying on, for instance, a spousal second income to help pay the bills. The employment system for scientists unfortunately is somewhat akin to the 'star' system of Hollywood ... again the old "Up or Out", accept where out in science often means "overqualified" particularly when daring to try and compete for either BA/MS or even earlier-career Ph.D. jobs...a waste of time usually unless obtainable through cronyism or nepotism. This unwritten policy or philosophy, obsessively adhered to for screening candidates nowadays, needs to be re-examined. A sizeable talent pool of down-on-their-luck previously successful and highly experienced professionals revolvingly exists and given some changes in today's hiring philsophy could help fill the biotech technician gap, and with little to no additional education based training requirement. For these folks, believe me if given the chance re-exercising one's technical and problem solving skills is like riding a bicycle, and easily adaptable to changing or emerging technologies or paradigms. There should be an open-mindedness to allow for a period of OTJ training, if a brief catch-up period is even needed. Today's lower position salaries have become quite handsome, and enough to foster a reasonable degree of loyalty on the part of the experienced candidate, at least long enough to contribute his/her service as a perceived valued investment by the hiring organization. [But try to convince a recruiter or hiring manager of this. Unfortunately its a tough sell, and unjustifyably, in today's job market].

I think perhaps a more thorough description of the actual job duties of a tech in the biotech industry are needed here, given previous comments. Seems like some folks are under the impression that an industry tech == academic tech. Academic techs are not so very different from grad students, till all is said and done. Industrial techs are a whole different kettle of Danio rerio.

I'm an industrial scientist. Before my employer started "re-organizing," I had a few techs. I don't have a Ph.D. I don't even have a MS. I have two years of grad school amounting to bugger-all, a few publications to show for it, some technical certifications and about eight years of industrial experience. When I had techs, it was about like having undergrad interns. I gave them a list of tasks to do that would have bored me stupid if I'd had to do them myself: counting over 1,000 agar plated cfus by hand, mixing up cell culture media from pre-manufactured powders, filling out regulatory paperwork that certified that the HEPES really was at pH 7.2-7.8. They answered exciting and interesting questions like, "Who mis-filed the technical drawings for our prototype?" and "Which clamp manufacturer sells the cheapest 330 stainless steel clamps?" That's what industrial techs do. The BSc, if it's required at all, only exists to ensure that the tech probably knows how to use a pH meter correctly and suggests that it's remotely possible they can carry out aseptic technique with some training. Maybe.

Most of my colleagues who are supervising techs have about the same qualifications as me, or even fewer qualifications. Some only got the job of "supervisor" because they weren't any good as bench techs themselves. How many PhDs of ANY kind do you know who would be 100% happy to take orders from a kid who only finished his undergrad degree a year or two ago, who has NO publications and very little work experience at all?

Another point:

When you ask biotech corporations what The Jobs Of The Future will be, the answer they give has approx. a two-year expiration date. WRT their demand for biotech techs--we've found that it just takes too friggin' long to teach/train what we really need to run the traditional reactors and pick clones the old-fashioned way. Instead, we went out and bought disposable reactors (Wave, Xcellerex, etc.) and highly validated software and dumbed down the whole process to the point that it can all be done by a couple of techs with NO education at all. None. There's an economic tipping point where we balance this question: Is it cheaper to get the engineers to build something incredibly stupid-proofed than it is to hire and train expensive techs? And on the whole, it's not only cheaper, but faster and more efficient in other ways too, to spend the money on the engineering up front.

I find that in meetings with CEOs and HR directors and such, that it truly does help if you have someone from the business schools sitting beside you to translate what they really mean and what the likely outcomes will be. I think taking their statements at face value is a bad idea.

"How many PhDs of ANY kind do you know who would be 100% happy to take orders from a kid who only finished his undergrad degree a year or two ago, who has NO publications and very little work experience at all?"

The kind of PhD who has bills to pay, children to feed and is much rather working a drone-like job where they at least understand and care about the overall process, than one in a field they're not even interested in.

We're not talking about people choosing between a lab tech job or tenure here. We're talking about the unwashed masses; people who by now clearly know that a stable academic position is not in their reach and never will be. People that, if they try to stay in academia, will be bouncing between three or four colleges every day, doing substitute teaching on short-term contracts, or on call-up for a salary that will barely cover the travel expenses.

I'm looking at my options and they do, quite seriously, include convenience store clerking (night and weekend shifts would bring in just about the same pay I have now, once I factor out the travel expenses, and with stretches of free time for reading and writing). I'm not in biotech; my MSc is in Computer Science so with some added on-the-job training I could work as a programmer, but that is hampered by most companies' reluctance to hire someone that is older and seemingly over- or misqualified for any job they have. They're understandably wary that I'd jump ship at the first chance of a job related to my degree.

Lora sounds like she's in a core facility. The jobs there (and in scale-up, production and things like that) are very different from those in the research labs, where lab heads all have PhDs, and CVs similar to those academic PIs, and the "non-PhD scientist" positions are frequently quite close to what most postdocs actually do. (As opposed to what postdocs are supposed to be doing.)

Nope, I'm in research. My current boss does indeed have a PhD and post-doc'ed at Harvard before going to industry. But that's only because I work for Big Pharma. If you work for startups or smaller, privately owned operations, then you're looking at having much less qualified people bossing the techs around. I did have *more* techs when I worked in the core facility, years ago, and those techs were *somewhat* insulated from downsizing. Although I heard they're laying off those too this year...

The reason we have so many boring tasks for techs to do is because our research targets shift so fast in industry. You don't want to spend $100,000 on an automated colony enumerator if you're only going to use it for six months' worth of data--you hire a tech for $15/hour. And there's lots of things that have to be certified by a human, which have only become recently automated, for which the robots still cost a lot, such as for media pH balancing.

Not to be a total downer, but here are my suggestions for what I think academia should do. I realize that they are not at all incremental in scope nor even feasible, but if I had academia's absolute intellectual and economic freedom to make my own rules, here's what they'd be:

-Build tech transfer offices that also connect students with SBIR grants and the university business school departments. Create projects for students to develop IP and market it.

-When you work on interdisciplinary projects, mean it. Include disciplines like marketing, economics, management, finance, etc. so that students can work on getting ideas to market and all that entails. There are lots of "alternative careers" out there in development and tech transfer and so forth that require some knowledge of science. People should know about them instead of temping or driving taxis.

-Build more medical schools, and do some clinical studies within the university as translational research. A drug candidate or medical device that has passed Phase IIa clinical testing is much, MUCH more valuable as IP than some cheesy thing that ain't gonna make it past mice. This not only provides income for the university, but also provides lots of training opportunities for medical, science and nursing students, plus it gets the evil industrial influence (muwhahaha!) out of clinical research.

Thanks lue,

From the comments at your site, it seems that many students expected one thing and found another. That happens in the U.S., too.

But there is a difference.

In the U.S., we have community colleges that actively work to build relationships with companies and find internships for their students. Rather than asking the students to do all the background research, the community college biotechnology programs often address the points that you discussed in your post and include items like resume writing, for example, in their programs.