Facing the STEM challenge in education
GREATER BOSTON IS putting its global leadership in biotech innovation on display this week as more than 16,000 people from 74 countries descend on the city for the 2018 BIO International Convention. With our highly educated workforce, vital venture capital community, top-notch hospitals and academic research institutes, and a strong public-private partnership, Greater Boston has made itself the biotech place to be.
No wonder, then, that in the last decade Massachusetts biopharma employment grew by 28 percent to more than 66,000 jobs.
But with this success comes additional challenges. And if those challenges aren’t met, we could inadvertently stunt our enviable growth. A new study by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd) finds that the Massachusetts biopharmaceutical sector is growing so rapidly that businesses are having trouble filling jobs.
As problems go, that’s not a bad one to have. Still, it’s one we can’t ignore. That’s why the City of Boston and our biotech leaders are focused on giving tomorrow’s workers the skills to fill these jobs. We’re starting with our homegrown talent from Boston Public Schools.
Biopharma jobs come with good pay and benefits. They range from lab technician, which requires an associate’s degree, to scientific researcher, which needs a PhD. And that’s where we’re falling short. The MassBioEd report found that while biotech job openings requiring an associate’s degree grew by 100 percent since 2010, those graduating with relevant degrees increased by only 56 percent. Similarly, biotech jobs requiring a PhD grew by 43 percent, but those graduating with biotech-related PhDs increased by only 16 percent.
So how do we nurture the local talent needed to fuel our future job and innovation growth? We start with a guarantee that all children, whatever their starting point, get the education they need to thrive. Boston is leaning into this responsibility through a comprehensive $1 billion plan, known as BuildBPS, to rebuild and revitalize Boston’s aging school infrastructure. We did it with the Dearborn STEM Academy, and we’re doing it with a number of other schools across the city.
But the city can’t do it alone. This effort requires partnerships with our world-class universities, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. That’s the only way to provide access to real-world educational opportunities of the sort that will keep students engaged and excited about learning, even outside the classroom. One example: the city’s 5th Quarter of Learning, an innovative summer learning initiative that blends academic lessons with hands-on enrichment. Meanwhile, community partners give thousands of high-need students a chance to explore Boston cultural resources while learning — all for free.
Leading Boston biotech companies like Vertex are doing their part as well. Vertex is helping kids experience the potential of science and other careers involving technology, engineering, and math. The goal: Use in-house programing and community partnerships to hook kids on science at an early age. That way, we can maintain their interest through middle school and high school, times where far too many kids, particularly girls and underserved youth, drift away from math and science.
As part of that effort, Vertex built a state-of-the-art 3,000-square-foot classroom and laboratory space at the company’s world headquarters in the Seaport; there, students and teachers work alongside Vertex scientists to conduct experiments with cutting-edge technologies. Vertex also provides paid high school and college internships for Boston students, and four-year, full-ride scholarships to pursue an education in STEM at any University of Massachusetts campus. Finally, it means thinking long term, with a $50 million, 10-year commitment from the Vertex Foundation for STEM education in communities where Vertex has a presence.
As biotech leaders from around the world gather in Boston, they will see firsthand how Boston and Massachusetts are leading the world in life-changing biomedical innovations. But they should also know that we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re meeting the employment challenges of the future with a concerted effort to get kids in every corner of this city excited about STEM — and about a career finding cures for our most complex diseases.
Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston. Dr. Jeffrey Leiden is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals.