While other states and nations came to the global BIO 2023 convention in Boston this week on the hunt for investors and companies to grow their biotech sectors, Massachusetts has a different problem: It can’t find enough workers to fill positions.
For the second straight day, the state’s focus at the BIO podiums and the convention’s Massachusetts pavilion Tuesday was on recruiting employees for a rapidly expanding industry, as Governor Maura Healey announced new workforce initiatives and promised to “lengthen Massachusetts’ lead” in life sciences.
There are currently more than 750 openings listed on the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s jobs board, but industry officials say that number greatly understates the demand for employees — especially lab and production workers — faced by more than 1,000 biotechs now operating in the state.
“We want to broaden the reach of the life sciences in Massachusetts,” Healey said in her BIO welcoming address at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. “We want to open it up to more high school graduates by providing in-demand skills, good job opportunities, and meaningful careers — whether in your labs, your offices, or your manufacturing facilities.”
Meanwhile, at booths and pavilions set up on the BIO exhibition floor by dozens of US states and 88 countries, some spoke of biotech envy.
“When you look at Kendall Square in Cambridge, that’s nirvana,” said Andrew Casey, chief executive of the trade group BIOTECanada, who walked around the biotech hub earlier this week. “Everyone wants that.”
Casey, who was planning a breakfast for investors as his colleagues handed out maple candy at Canada’s pavilion, said his country has fostered clusters of biotech startups and attracted foreign drug makers, including Cambridge-based Moderna, but has yet to establish strong anchor companies.
Rival states like North Carolina and Texas were touting their lower taxes, better weather, and even their barbecue in the competition for investment capital and biopharma firms seeking to move or expand elsewhere.
“Our corporate tax is 2.5 percent and it’s decreasing to zero by 2030,” promised Katie Stember, director of life sciences development for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “We have a lower-cost workforce and a lower cost of living, especially compared to Massachusetts and California.”
“Plus, we only have two inches of snow each year,” chimed in Chris Johnson, economic development director for Johnston County, N.C., which covers the state’s Research Triangle region.
But other life sciences clusters, in the United States and overseas, still lack what Healey described as the powerful “ecosystem” of research labs, venture capital, and biotechs plentiful in Massachusetts, where one of the vaccines that helped tamp down the COVID pandemic was developed.
“We have led the world forward,” she said. “And we are ready to lengthen our lead. This is the power of our ecosystem. It’s rooted deep in our culture. If you’ll pardon the expression, life sciences are in our DNA — and also in our mRNA,” a reference to the molecule underpinning Moderna’s vaccine that drew knowing laughs from many in the audience.
Healey said her administration is launching MassTalent, an agency she described as a one-stop front door to connect employers in life sciences and other fields, such as clean energy, to skilled and diverse workers. The program will tap $50 million available through the state’s Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund to fund partnerships between employers and trainers.
As one component of that initiative, the governor said the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency that offers incentives to companies hiring workers in the sector, would fund a program called Pathmaker. It will offer training partnerships for students and adults with a high school education. The aim is to prepare them for biomanufacturing and other jobs in the growing field that don’t require a college or advanced degree.
Healey also reiterated that she plans to reauthorize legislation to extend the 15-year-old, $1.6 billion Massachusetts life sciences initiative that accelerated the sector’s growth, but gave no details. The initiative is set to expire next year.
On the exhibition floor, representatives from other states and countries were more than eager to lure MIT graduates and others looking for a more business-friendly environment.
“This is Boston, the hub,” said Alessandra Rainaldi, a US director for the Italian Trade Agency, who offered visitors to her BIO pavilion some espresso and biscotti cookies. “But in the life sciences, Italy is the leader in Europe when it comes to innovation. It’s not only fashion, food, and design.”
Texas, for its part, boasted five separate biotech clusters: in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso.
“Everything they can do in Cambridge, we can do in Texas,” said Victoria Ford, president of the Texas Healthcare & Bioscience Initiative. “And everything you need to buy is less expensive in Texas.”
Healey was having none of it, though. Despite the struggle to find workers in high-cost Massachusetts, the governor said the state’s door remains open to talent and companies from other states who want to relocate here.
“To all of you who are here from around the United States and the world: we are holding a roster spot for you,” she told her BIO audience.
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.