In the red-hot race to fill biotech jobs, benefits abound
As many Americans struggle to make ends meet, despite the strong economy, the Massachusetts biotechnology sector is growing so fast that employers are offering increasingly generous — and almost unheard of — benefits to attract and keep workers.
Perks like 100 percent company-paid health insurance. Money to pay off student loans. Unlimited vacation time. Up to 12 weeks of paid bereavement leave. Free catered lunches and nitro cold brew coffee every day. Boxing classes, massages, and sneakers in corporate colors — all on the house.
This is what happens when one of the world’s most robust life sciences sectors creates more jobs than it can fill.
“When we make a job offer to an employee, they have three other offers that they’re considering,” said Teresa Regan, vice president of human resources at Neon Therapeutics, a Cambridge startup that’s developing cancer vaccines.
Neon gives its roughly 100 workers Friday afternoons off in the summer, weekly massages, dental insurance that partially covers the cost of braces for children and adults, and a “life services concierge” — a consultant who offers advice on everything from financial planning to finding a dog walker.
“We do the benefits because it’s competitive, but also because we think it’s the right thing to do,” Regan said. “Our employees dedicate so much time and energy to Neon and the mission, and we want to make sure they feel cared for in turn.”
To a large extent, such lucrative perks reflect simple supply and demand.
The life sciences sector in Massachusetts has expanded at about twice the overall rate of the state and US economies since 2014, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation. Employment in the field last year surpassed 70,000 in the state for the first time.
As the workforce balloons, the demand for qualified scientists, administrators, and other workers is outpacing the supply. Indeed, biotech employees are such a hot commodity that they are jumping from one firm to another more often than they did just a few years ago because job offers pour in.
In 2012, 6.1 percent of Massachusetts life sciences employees left their jobs voluntarily, typically with another job offer in hand, according to Radford, a unit of the global professional services firm Aon PLC that works with life sciences and technology companies. Last year, that more than doubled to 13 percent, the highest figure in a decade.
The rate has dipped slightly this year to 11.7 percent, according to Radford, but a “voluntary turnover” rate that exceeds 10 percent a year is considered disruptive to a biotech company, particularly startups trying to grow.
“It’s a seller’s market right now for employee talent,” said Robert Surdel Jr., a partner at Radford. “You’ve got a finite labor pool, and you’ve got almost unlimited demand.”
Biotech jobs pay well, particularly in Massachusetts. The average base salary for an entry-level scientist is $88,076, 9.5 percent above the national average for that position at a biotech, according to Radford. The average base salary for a mid-career scientist at a Massachusetts biotech is $118,634, about 3.9 percent above the national average for that position.
Some drug makers might woo a job candidate with a sign-on bonus or a salary 10 percent higher than a competitor’s, but small startups often can’t afford to do that. They’re typically funded entirely by venture capital and aren’t yet generating revenue. That’s where benefits come into play.
“Most companies don’t take an aggressive position on salary because they don’t have the cash to burn,” Surdel said. “They say ‘we’ll take a more holistic view’ ” of what might entice a job applicant.
That approach worked with Lynnelle Pittet. She joined Wave Life Sciences Ltd. last year and oversees collaborations between the Cambridge biotech and other drug makers. Wave is trying to develop treatments for Huntington’s disease, ALS, and other disorders.
Pittet, who has a PhD in immunology and a master’s degree in business administration, said she had two competing offers from local biotechs and expected at least one other. The pay would have been roughly the same at all the firms. She picked Wave, she said, because she loved the company and Wave offered “by far the best benefits package I’ve ever seen.”
Among the add-ons: health insurance for her family of four paid entirely by the company, free catered lunches daily (her favorites include grilled salmon and steak tips), and “open time off” — vacation time with no set limits.
Pittet, 39, received four weeks of vacation at her previous biotech job and expects to take about the same at Wave. But she no longer fastidiously counts how many days she has used if, say, relatives visit unexpectedly from out of town and she wants to take a day or two off.
“When you get to a certain point in your career, you want to be treated like an adult,” Pittet said. “If you’re not at work enough to do your job, it will show.”
Dr. Paul Bolno, Wave’s chief executive, said the benefits give employees plenty of time to spend with their families and recharge, which enables them to focus on developing drugs when they’re at work. “We don’t want them to worry about other things,” he said.
It’s common for biotech startups to provide stock options to employees, a potentially lucrative benefit if the company is successful.
Now some startups are offering a more unusual perk: help paying off school loans.
With the total student debt in the United States topping $1.5 trillion and many biotech workers earning multiple advanced degrees, the benefit is more enticing to some young employees than an employer match on a 401(k) retirement plan.
“You just came out of school, you have student loans, you’re ramping up your professional career, and you want to pay off debt and start saving money,” said Sarah Larson, a partner at Third Rock Ventures, the Boston life sciences venture capital firm.
Third Rock offers the benefit to its own staff, contributing $200 to $400 a month to each worker who wants help paying down student loans.
Cedilla Therapeutics, a Cambridge biotech that Third Rock recently launched to develop drugs targeting cancer-driving proteins, is setting up a similar program.
And it’s not just attracting new workers that concerns biotech executives — they don’t want to lose the ones they already have.
Dr. Barbara Weber, chief executive of Tango Therapeutics, said the Cambridge firm has about 40 employees and hasn’t lost a single one since it began hiring in October 2016.
She mostly attributed that to enthusiasm about Tango’s efforts to develop a new generation of targeted cancer therapies using the latest advances in DNA sequencing.
“These guys are driven first and foremost by the mission of the company,” said Weber, whose annual bonus is partly tied to employee retention.
“If that’s not good, you can give all the free yoga classes in the world — people won’t be happy.”
But Tango also provides its employees with an allowance to defray the cost of commuting, a refrigerator stocked with food, catered lunches twice a week, yoga classes, and Nike sneakers bearing the company’s name and signature colors — purple and blue. The sneakers were designed by an employee who won a contest for the best pattern.
Some of the more unorthodox benefits also appear to foster camaraderie among workers who might not ordinarily bump into each other at the office.
Corbus Pharmaceuticals, a Norwood startup working on synthetic cannabinoid drugs, provides free boxing classes four times a week at Title Boxing Club near the company’s headquarters.
Jungeun Lee, 26, who left PricewaterhouseCoopers last year to join Corbus as a senior accountant, trains at the gym twice a week with the chief medical officer, scientists, and other co-workers. She estimates she saves about $2,400 a year in gym expenses and gets a great workout by punching the heavy bag.
“It makes you sore for days,” Lee said. “And it’s a way for me to see employees outside of work and have a bonding experience.”