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Innovation Economy

The pandemic hasn’t slowed hiring at local biotech and tech companies

Job prospects remain good in sectors largely insulated from the state’s economic woes.

Life-sciences companies have offered a bright spot for hiring during the pandemic.Mary Turner/NYT

What does it mean to be part of the “quaranteam?”

If you got hired last year at Constellation Pharmaceuticals, but no one has yet met you face-to-face, you’re on it.

The Cambridge company is developing an array of drugs to treat cancer, and it hired about 75 people over the course of 2020. Brenda Sousa, chief human resources officer, says she expects this year’s hiring to run at about the same rate. But as the quaranteam has grown, the company has been increasingly open to hiring people outside of Massachusetts, Sousa says; some will be expected to relocate as the pandemic wanes, but others will stay where they are “due to the nature of their roles.”

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As the unemployment rate in Massachusetts spiked last year, much of the news was about layoffs and furloughs. But hiring was still happening at biotech and technology companies. Some, such as Constellation, have become more open to hiring from out of state, but others are planning for a return to the collaborative, office-based culture of the “before times.”

Ed Nathanson, vice president of talent at EQRx, a biotech startup that raised $500 million this month, says it has been renovating a Kendall Square office during the pandemic, and “We all can’t wait to see it.”

One of the most aggressive talent-seekers in 2020 was Amazon, which added about 700 white-collar workers to what it calls its Boston Tech Hub, said spokesman Zach Goldsztejn. The hub includes teams working on speech recognition for Amazon’s Alexa devices, data security and cloud computing groups, and people designing and building the robots that move merchandise in Amazon’s warehouses.

Goldsztejn says there are more than 400 of these corporate and technology-focused job openings posted in the Boston area. The Amazon hub ended 2020 with about 3,700 employees.

“I refer to Amazon as Pac-Man,” says Beverly Kahn, founder and president of NDT, a Marblehead recruiting firm. “Amazon is gobbling up some of our finest.” Engineers can be offered a starting salary of $160,000 to $300,000, says Larry Kahn, a vice president at NDT.

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“The real pull, however, is the equity,” he continued. “Because Amazon stock has performed so well in recent years, the equity packages make it very attractive and hard to turn down.” And Amazon layers on additional stock options to encourage its employees to stick around, he adds.

Even some companies that cut jobs and executive pay in the early months of the pandemic, like Cambridge-based CarGurus, which operates a car shopping site, were hiring again by the end of the year.

“Business has bounced back really nicely,” says Eric Richmond, the company’s senior director of talent acquisition. “We hired about 90 people from August to the end of the year.”

Richmond says that it remains challenging to find skilled software developers. “That market hasn’t slowed at all. You have to go find passive candidates,” he says, meaning those who are currently employed and not actively applying to jobs.

In the first three months of 2021, Richmond says, “we’re on pace to be close to our historic hiring levels.” He expects the company to grow by about 75 to 80 employees this year. Hiring, he says, is still focused on places such as Cambridge and Dublin, Ireland, where the company has offices.

“We know we will be going back to the office, hopefully, as soon as possible,” he says. “We think it’s really important to continue to maintain some level of face-to-face interaction” — even though employees will have more flexibility to work from home when they need to. The pandemic, he says, “has helped us to build the muscles and the infrastructure to support more work from home, whereas in the past, we weren’t sure we could do that effectively.”

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At Nuance, a supplier of speech-recognition technology, there’s still a desire to hire people who live near company sites in Burlington, the Los Angeles area, Central Florida, and New Jersey, says Beth Conway, chief people and places officer. (Her role includes both hiring and the workplace environment.)

“We will continue to embrace flexibility,” Conway says, but the company is also “committed to having large groups working together at our hub locations.” Conway notes that the company has been discussing a way to give its hires a “virtual tour” of the office they’ll be working in so that they can get a sense for “what it looks like and feels like.”

In the life-sciences industry, even amidst the pandemic, Nathanson says, “hiring has actually ratcheted up a bit, surprisingly. You’ve got lots of startups, the mid-size businesses, and the giants — and they’re all here competing for talent.”

Nathanson, who previously worked for the cybersecurity company Rapid7, also says that the pandemic has made candidates living outside of the state more hesitant to move for a job. EQRx, which aims to develop and license more affordable drugs for a range of diseases, hired about 112 people in 2020, and Nathanson says the plan is to add 130 more this year.

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Forma Therapeutics hired about 40 people in 2020, representing about 40 percent of the workforce. (The Watertown company had undergone a restructuring in early 2019, laying off about 60 people.) Chief human resources officer Mary Wadlinger says, “We hired more permanently remote colleagues than ever before.” Forma develops drugs for diseases like prostate cancer and sickle cell anemia.

Wadlinger plans to hire another 40 to 50 employees in 2021. Online interviewing offers new insights into a candidate’s character, she says: “How they react to children interrupting, dogs barking, or the challenges of a virtual interview.”

Beverly Kahn, who started her recruiting firm in 1979, says she has lived through several recessions since then. She can remember stretches when dominant Massachusetts tech companies like Data General and Wang Laboratories were cutting jobs by the thousands.

“This has been a tough time,” she says, but opportunities still exist for people with skills that are in high demand.

“It’s not at all like previous recessions. There isn’t this negativity. I think people have acclimated to what’s going on, they’ve acclimated to remote work and remote hiring, and some companies are now planning to be back in the office three days a week, post-vaccine.”


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.