Business & Tech

The growth of Mass. biotechs is outpacing the number of qualified workers

The biopharmaceutical sector in Massachusetts is growing so fast that companies are struggling to fill vacancies, particularly entry-level jobs that require an associate’s degree and those on the other end of the spectrum that require PhDs, according to a new study.

Nearly 12,000 new jobs are expected to be created between mid-2017 and mid-2023, an increase of more than 17 percent, said the report by the nonprofit Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation. That’s less than the 20.5 percent for the prior six years, but still robust.

The life sciences sector is expanding at about twice the overall rate of the state and US economies, according to the foundation’s 2018 Job Trends Forecast. Employment in biopharma last year for the first time surpassed 70,000 workers in Massachusetts.

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“If your kids aren’t interested in the life sciences, maybe you should talk to them about it,” said Peter Abair, executive director of MassBioEd, whichreleased the report at a news conference Wednesday.

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Jobs that require associate’s degrees, such as lab technicians, and those that require doctorates, such as scientific researchers, are among the hardest to fill.

The number of students graduating with a biotech-related associate’s degree rose 56 percent since 2010, but job openings requiring that degree grew by more than 100 percent, the report said.

Similarly, the number of students graduating with a biotech-related PhD rose 16 percent, but job openings requiring that degree grew 43 percent, according to the study.

The fact that demand for workers outstrips supply is a “good problem to have,” Abair said, but could ultimately lead to a slowdown if companies are unable to find qualified workers.

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“The industry is growing, so you need more fuel,” he said. “If the fuel over a long period of time isn’t readily available, then the growth won’t be there.”

While the demand for workers may mean higher wages, it also can result in some jobs going unfilled for months.

About two-thirds of the 128 biopharmaceutical companies that completed surveys said it takes an average of more than 10 weeks to fill openings, according to the report. The national average for filling vacancies in all types of industries is about 30 days.

To Dr. Barbara Weber, a cancer specialist who serves as CEO of Tango Therapeutics, a Cambridge start-up, the only surprising thing about the 10-week wait was that it wasn’t longer.

“We’ve been trying to hire one immunologist at Tango for a year and a half,” she said. “Those people are getting, like, two job offers a week.”

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The demand for workers is particularly intense at companies developing drugs based on the latest scientific technology, including gene therapy and CAR-T therapies to eradicate cancer cells, according to Pearl Freier, president of Cambridge BioPartners, a recruiting firm.

“Companies are struggling to find the right scientists with the right experience,” she said.

Nonetheless, she also doesn’t believe 10 weeks is a particularly long time to fill job openings. Often, she said, it takes several weeks simply to schedule a time when multiple managers can interview a job candidate.

Although biotech is booming in Massachusetts, it faces another challenge besides filling open positions: ramping up anemic efforts to create a diverse workforce.

About 60 percent of the companies that responded to the survey said they have no formal diversity initiatives in the hiring process.

James Greenwood, who heads the Washington-based Biotechnology Innovation Organization trade group, said many start-ups are “so focused on just trying to keep their heads above water that they’re not thinking about diversity.”

Nonetheless, he said, they should change that, because firms with more diverse workforces have more varied perspectives and perform better.

Weber, the chief executive of Tango, said her company doesn’t have a formal diversity program and probably should do better. Tango’s roughly three dozen employees are mostly white or Asian.

“Maybe we should be trying harder and not giving ourselves the excuse of being a start-up,” she said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com