The development of life science spaces in Boston shows no signs of slowing down. Recent estimates suggest upward of 10 million square feet of office and industrial space in Greater Boston is being converted to labs, and roughly half of those projects don’t have a tenant lined up. And while zoning, planning, real estate, and development are all major concerns in the expansion of lab space in Boston, one factor that is often overlooked is the status of workforce development opportunities for Boston residents, particularly people of color.
Greater Boston is seeing some of the most rapid growth in employment in the life sciences industry compared with surrounding areas. Not surprisingly, this explosive expansion has led to an urgent demand for trained talent to support the industry. Recent reports from job listing entities that track employment, such as Indeed.com and Biotech Networks, note that there were 2,630 job listings for the industry in Cambridge between July 2020 and mid-January of 2021. Talent has become so scarce that companies have begun poaching employees by offering higher salaries and more benefits.
While this is an exciting opportunity for Boston residents, the persistent lack of diversity in STEM fields poses a problem for Black and brown residents looking to take advantage of these new employment opportunities. Black and Hispanic workers across the United States make up 28 percent of the total workforce, but only 17 percent of STEM employees, according to Pew Research. If the expansion of economic opportunities in STEM fields does not make its way to Black and brown communities, it’s just a further roadblock on the way to economic empowerment and to Boston’s aspirations as a global model of economic equity.
Recently, the Boston City Council held a hearing on the need for clear commitments from the life sciences industry to invest in dedicated training space and certification programs to ensure that Boston residents have access to these workforce opportunities. Governments both at the state and city level, as well as industry-led initiatives, have a role to play in organizing the industry around this goal, to define a streamlined training curriculum, and to invest in the training ecosystem to achieve a more diverse life sciences industry in Massachusetts.
Work has begun in the private sector to create pipelines for more diverse employment opportunities. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has completed a new strategic plan and is focused on diversity in the life sciences industry. LabCentral, the leading shared lab space provider for life sciences in the Boston area, established a suite of programs to fuel more diversity and create more job opportunities in the biotech industry. This initiative, LabCentral Ignite, will play a critical role in responding to the need for greater access to and community awareness of career opportunities for residents disconnected from biotech. Ginkgo Bioworks recently announced a partnership with the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology to design an associate’s degree in biotechnology
Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, a training provider that has a 12-month training certificate program and high job placement rates in the industry, will join the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology and other educators at the center. Nubian Square in particular has received a great deal of attention. The Dearborn STEM Academy, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, Roxbury Community College, Boston Latin Academy and other schools in proximity can train in the square and then take the number 1 bus to work in Kendall Square/MIT or the Silver Line to the Seaport. In time, they will be closer to the ecosystem of life sciences companies expected to take up residency on Parcel 3 and the South End, creating with the center the potential for a vibrant new life sciences corridor where residents can live, learn, and work.
While these industry initiatives are promising, there is still a lot of work to do. There needs to be more investment in schools like Madison Park to train young people to be prepared for success in the biotech industry. More apprenticeships and internship opportunities must be created, and there should be guidance on how and when to apply so that young students of color are encouraged early on to explore this career path. Industry leaders should highlight life science workers of color and form mentorship programs so that students of color can see themselves in positions of success. Perhaps most important, new real estate developments in the area should include housing and anti-displacement measures so that Black and brown neighborhoods can thrive even with this new explosion of lab space development.
This is an immense amount of work, and it will require the collaboration of government agencies, elected officials, developers, biotech companies, schools, and the community. There can be a bright future ahead for biotech in Boston, but the planning needs to start now.
Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia is chair of the council’s Committee on Labor, Workforce, and Economic Empowerment. Gretchen Cook Anderson is executive director of LabCentral Ignite. Johannes Fruehauf is president and founder of LabCentral. Richard Taylor is managing director of Nubian Square Life Science Training Center.