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As big pharma moves to Mass., workers feel squeeze

More companies moving research positions to the state

The Bay State beckoned when Shire PLC offered Barry Herman a job transfer, but Jennifer Heckman wasn’t in  a position to make the move out of Pennsylvania.
The Bay State beckoned when Shire PLC offered Barry Herman a job transfer, but Jennifer Heckman wasn’t in a position to make the move out of Pennsylvania.(Scott Lewis for The Globe)

When the drug maker Shire PLC recently told hundreds of employees at its Chesterbrook, Pa., campus that their jobs would be moving to Lexington, they faced a choice: Pick up and relocate to the Boston area, or stay in Pennsylvania and look for another place to work.

Jennifer Heckman, 43, who heads clinical operational excellence for Shire, was not in a position to head north. With three children in school, a husband who was working for another Philadelphia-area pharmaceutical company, and a historic farmhouse on six acres in bucolic Chester County, Heckman thought she’d be giving up too much — even to keep a job she loves.

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“My gut reaction was just disappointment,” she said.

For a neuroscience medical team leader, Barry Herman, who is 64 and unencumbered by any family roots in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t hard to make the decision to move to Massachusetts. He graduated from Clark University in Worcester and Tufts University School of Medicine, previously worked for Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Marlborough, and has a brother and friends in the Boston area.

“This was really a terrific opportunity for me,” said Herman, who has made several moves in his career. “I have a lot of connections in Boston, going back to college.”

Shire’s decision to send more than 500 research and commercial jobs from Chesterbrook to its US headquarters off Route 128 has sparked some difficult calculations among those affected. But they are only the latest biopharma employees to have to weigh the lure of Boston against the comforts of home. As the area becomes an industry magnet — and as Massachusetts becomes adept at poaching companies — more life sciences companies are expanding here and shrinking elsewhere.

Last summer, GE Healthcare Life Sciences, which makes bioreactors and other equipment used in biotech manufacturing, said it would set up its US base in Marlborough and move about 220 jobs there from Piscataway, N.J. In the fall, the health care giant Baxter International Inc. said it would open its main biopharma research center far from its Deerfield, Ill., headquarters — in the heart of Kendall Square. That’s at least 400 more well-paying jobs for Cambridge.

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In recent years, Big Pharma stalwarts Pfizer Inc., Novartis AG, and Sanofi SA have all moved jobs and research programs to Cambridge from Southeastern Connecticut and Northern New Jersey. And the nation’s largest biotechnology company, Amgen Inc., in the summer said it would expand its Kendall Square research center even as it unveiled a restructuring plan that will slash more than 2,400 jobs and shutter four sites in Colorado and Washington state.

“What are you going to do?” asked Mayor Brian C. Wahler of Piscataway, who said his township will have to absorb the loss of tax revenue from GE Healthcare’s move. “Boston has a large concentration of research universities, so companies are going to where that strength is. The reality in this day and age is you’re in competition with other areas. And if a corporate board wants to go somewhere else, there’s not much you can do to stop them.”

Businesses also take a hit when a drug maker begins an exodus from their area.

David Brennan, general manager of the Wayne Hotel, across town from the Shire campus in suburban Philadelphia, said he has hosted visitors from Shire’s offices in the United Kingdom and France. Brennan said his hotel lost some business about 10 years ago when another big drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, moved out of the region.

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“We do have a concern for our neighbors who are employed by Shire and are going to be significantly impacted if they receive a severance from Shire,” Brennan said. “These are close-knit communities around here, and the schools are very good. It would be very difficult for many people to uproot themselves and start again somewhere else.”

That is certainly true for Heckman, who has stayed put during a series of changes. She worked for another drug maker, AstraZeneca PLC, in nearby Wilmington, Del., for 17 years until she was told last year that her team was being transferred to Washington, D.C. She opted to take a job at ViroPharma Inc. in Exton, Pa., even closer to home. But shortly after she joined ViroPharma, it was taken over by Shire.

“I’ve worked in a global environment my whole career, and some of my top-performing teams have been an ocean apart,” Heckman said. “I’m just a little confused why pharma companies are making these decisions to colocate their workers in a single location. I can understand it from a business perspective. But I’m just not prepared to make a move at this time.”

Herman, who previously worked at Sunovion and Pfizer, said he is eager to complete his current assignment at Shire, which involves helping to bring to market a drug that treats binge eating.

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“This was a terrific opportunity to me,” he said. “I really lucked out and I really want to see this through. This is a much more difficult choice for people who are more connected to Philadelphia and have roots in the community.”

Massachusetts state of mind

Global biopharma companies have been expanding their research and business operations here while cutting back at other sites. Some recent examples:

December 2014: SHIRE, the drugmaker based in Ireland, said it would move more than 500 research and commercial jobs to to Lexington from Chesterbrook, Pa.

August 2014: London-based GE HEALTHCARE said it will move 218 life sciences jobs to Marlborough from Piscataway, N.J.

July 2014: AMGEN INC., based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said it will expand its Cambridge research center by an unspecified number of jobs while cutting more than 2,400 jobs in Colorado and Washington state.

June 2014: New York-based PFIZER opened a 1,000-person research center in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, including jobs consolidated from other Bostonarea sites and jobs moved here from Groton, Conn.

November 2013: Switzerland’s NOVARTIS AG said it will cut 500 research jobs in Horsham, England, and Emeryville, Calif., while adding 175 jobs at its global research hub in Cambridge.

Global biopharma companies have been expanding their research and business operations in Massachusetts while cutting back at other sites.
Global biopharma companies have been expanding their research and business operations in Massachusetts while cutting back at other sites.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.