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Apr 23, 2013

Job Report: Better Training Essential

  • The biopharmaceutical industry will need more specialized professionals over the next three years, but academia cannot produce them unless it works with industry to train them, and certify them in the sought-after skills, according to findings from a report announced yesterday at BIO.

    Positions hardest to fill require specialized skills beyond what many even advanced-degree graduates possess, since current programs are too theoretical, according to “Demand for Talent: Current & Projected Workforce Trends in the Life Science Industry.” The report was issued by the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes (CSBI), whose members include state life-sci groups, and Booz & Co.

    Key findings from the report were discussed publicly by CSBI and Booz in interviews with GEN, and at a press briefing.

    “The single biggest job for which there has been continuous need for over a decade has been bioinformatics and computational biology, made even worse now with the demands of big data,” Avi Kulkarni, Ph.D., a vp and partner with Booz who is a member of the firm’s global health practice. “There’s a realization by industry that a brilliant statistician is not good enough. They need a brilliant statistician who can actually communicate statistics to the rest of his team. There’s a huge cultural issue, which is the difference between data and problem solving.”

    Also needed in coming years, Dr. Kulkarni said, are regulatory and compliance professionals who can regularly and proactively work with teams to translate global regulations into rules a company can more easily follow when it comes time to seek marketing authorization for a new drug: “That typically means someone who has global experience—not just understanding FDA regs—and has been in the business at least three to five years.”

    Demand also exceeds supply, Dr. Kulkarni added, in basic process engineers capable of ramping up a biomanufacturing operation, directors that can run a CLIA lab, and clinical laboratory scientists, especially those with cancer expertise.

    The report recommended more efforts by industry to join colleges and universities in developing training programs, with rigorous standards that would earn graduates national certification by a nonindustry group.

    “As business is going to leaner models, they want people who can work cross-functionally. As we outsource more, we need project managers. There are a lot of skills that are definitely not just purely science-based or book-learned. They really need to be applied in the workplace,” CSBI chair Lori Lindburg, Ph.D. explained. She is also executive director of the nonprofit BayBio Institute, which supports science education and life science career development in the San Francisco region.

    Dr. Lindburg said additional job demand is also expected in digital health, which crosses bioscience with IT; personalized medicine; diagnostics development; biofuels and industrial biotech specialties; and bioinformaticians who can crunch genomic sequencing data.

    While community colleges have tried to fill the gap with their own certificate programs, she said, “There’s still a perception by a lot of companies that community college degrees don’t mean much, and they won’t accept students that don’t have bachelor’s degrees.”

    Drs. Lindburg and Kulkarni agreed that most demand for future biopharma jobs will come from the businesses and institutions that comprise the largest regional life-sci clusters—namely the Boston/Cambridge, MA, and San Francisco regions.

    The trend toward virtual education via massive open online courses or MOOCs is unlikely to ease the job crunch, Dr. Lindburg said. While MOOCs can be part of a training program, she said many hard-to-fill biopharma positions “can’t be done without a hands-on learning experience.

    “A standalone program trying to do everything virtually is not going to address what we’ve heard from industry as being the need for skills that come through learning in an experiential capacity,” she said.


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