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A worker shortage for life sciences

What Massachusetts needs to do to fill life sciences jobs.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

The life sciences industry in Massachusetts is growing at a rapid pace, but there aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs. Without immediate action, residents will be denied exciting employment opportunities and the state’s preeminent position in the industry will be threatened.

According to a report released last month by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, there has been a 35 percent increase in life sciences jobs in the state over the past decade. However, the state is not producing enough trained professionals to meet the employment demand. The demand for candidates with a PhD has grown 140 percent since 2010, but there has been no measurable increase in life sciences PhD conferrals. At the bachelor’s degree level, demand has grown 120 percent, with only a 37 percent increase in life sciences-related graduates. At the associate degree and high school graduate levels, job demand has grown by 140 percent with virtually no increase in supply.


MassBioEd surveyed Massachusetts life science companies about their hiring and employment experiences. Nearly one third stated that a shortage of applicants with the necessary skills is an obstacle to hiring. It often takes more than three months to fill open positions. Employers indicated that local competition is also an obstacle to hiring. Companies are stealing talent from one another, resulting in a loss of productivity and high re-training costs. Rather than compete for a limited pie of workers, we need to expand the pie.

With negligible growth in the number of people entering college over the foreseeable future, solving this workforce shortage will require creativity and diligence by many partners, including the life sciences industry, the education sector, and the nonprofit world.

First, the industry needs to get creative about methods of hiring and training. One way to expand the worker supply is to look for candidates with the aptitude for the work but without the traditional pedigree. These could include short-term training programs, such as apprenticeships, with curriculum designed by the industry and targeted toward specific occupations. There also needs to be outreach to those who are unemployed or under-employed, immigrants, and veterans, who can expand the workforce. If an individual can learn the skills for a job without a degree, companies need to be open to shifting educational requirements and hiring nontraditional workers who can also help to diversify the industry.


Second, we need to significantly deepen career awareness of life sciences careers at all levels of education. Students are largely unaware of the great career opportunities and well-paying positions in life sciences and how to prepare for these jobs. There needs to be comprehensive career awareness plans, including outreach to teachers and guidance counselors at the K-12 level; providing schools with career information and industry speakers; recruiting college graduates from a wider range of majors, including math and computer science; and better preparing doctoral students to enter industry.

Third, research shows that a lack of soft skills is hindering professionals’ ability to effectively grow in this industry. It is essential to provide training in not only scientific methods, but also communication, collaboration, management, and problem solving. A lack of these soft skills in workers hinders the ability of companies to effectively promote and hire at management levels.

The Massachusetts life sciences industry leads the world in innovation. We need to make sure people can fill the jobs. Its continued growth could outpace the state’s ability to fill the jobs it’s creating. Together we need to ensure that our workforce benefits from the growth and opportunities in this exciting industry and that companies have the trained talent they need.


Sunny Schwartz is executive director of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation.