Massachusetts’ life sciences workforce is projected to grow by 16% or 12,000 jobs by 2024 after rising 35% in the decade ending last year. Yet a gap persists between the growing number of jobs and people skilled enough to fill them, according to a recent report examining employment supply and demand across the Bay State’s life-sci industry.

As a result, the industry, the state, and all its schools must do more to ensure that the positions can be filled with the quantity and especially quality of candidates needed, according to the 2019 Massachusetts Life Sciences Employment Outlook, an updated edition of an annual report released December 10 by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd).

The report found that the number of life sciences job postings in Massachusetts jumped 120% between 2010 and 2018 for graduates to 16,000 last year. For master’s degree candidates, the increase was 130%, to nearly 9,000 postings. For PhDs, the number of postings zoomed 140% during the period, to more than 8,000. Also showing a 140% leap were postings for high school graduates and associates degree candidates, which numbered about 1,200 last year.

However, the numbers of trained graduates capable of taking those positions rose by substantially less. In the biological and biomedical sciences, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred between 2009–10 and 2016–17 rose only 35%, from 86,391 to 116,759, according to U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data cited in the report.

NCES has also reported a 52% increase in master’s degree conferrals in the biological and biomedical sciences from 2009–10 to 2016–17, from 10,730 to 16,284. During that period, according to NCES, the number of PhDs rose 5%, from 7,672 to 8,087. The PhD conferral rate rose to 12%, MassBioEd reported, when all potential life-sciences related fields were included—such as chemistry, biology, computational science, chemical and biomedical engineering, and statistics.

Opportunity knocks

Karla Talanian, Director of Talent & Workforce Development, MassBioEd

“There’s an opportunity for the life sciences industry to do a better job explaining the career opportunities we have to offer,” Karla Talanian, director of Talent & Workforce Development, MassBioEd, told GEN.

In a recent interview, Talanian discussed the report and the broader challenge of developing a life sciences workforce large enough to fuel further industry growth within Massachusetts. The state’s life-sci industry is most concentrated in Boston and Cambridge, MA, and nearby suburbs—the nation’s highest-ranked region in GEN’s most recent annual A-List of “Top 10 U.S. Biopharma Clusters,” published September 23.

Talanian said interviews with high school students—even those who showed an interest and aptitude in biology, and plan to major in biology or biochemistry in college—reveal only modest interest on careers in life sciences.

“99% of them will say, ‘I’ll be a doctor or maybe a nurse, maybe a physical therapist,’ because those are the only careers that they’ve ever seen in real life…they just simply don’t know that these careers exist,” Talanian said. “Even at the college level, more can be done to expand the understanding of life sciences industry career options to science majors,” she says, particularly students majoring in statistics and data analytics.

“There’s just a huge opportunity to go out at the grassroots level and show people that these opportunities do exist, to bring back some of these people who think the only career options are in patient-centric health provider areas,” she added. “They’re great jobs, they’re great working environments. You get to invent drugs that are going to cure diseases.”

Apprenticeship focus

During 2020, Talanian said, MassBioEd will work with a consortium of local employers and state officials to establish apprenticeship programs that will initially focus on two life sciences segments—biomanufacturing technicians and clinical trial associates. The initiative is in early design stages, and consortium members have yet to be disclosed.

The focus on clinical operations reflects growing demand by drug developers for professionals to help them shepherd treatment candidates through clinical studies, while the biomanufacturing focus follows a wave of new facilities that have been announced or opened in recent months.

In October, for example, Cambridge-based LabCentral disclosed plans to create a 100,000-square-foot “scale-up” biomanufacturing incubator in 2021, using a $12.5 million investment from Astellas Pharma and a $5-million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public economic development and investment agency charged with overseeing the state’s Life Sciences Initiative, renewed last year for five years and $500 million.

More recently, Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific opened a $90-million commercial facility in nearby Lexington, designed to support the development and manufacture of viral vectors. More than 200 jobs are set to be based at the 50,000-square-foot site.

Over time, the apprenticeship initiative is envisioned to expand to other life-sci occupations, as well as beyond Boston/Cambridge into other regions of the state.

“We’re really going to be looking for people to have the attitude and the aptitude that will make them good workers,” Talanian said. They could include career-changers who have gone to college, returning military veterans without a college degree but with transferable skills, and others who for whatever reason didn’t have the opportunity to go to college: “There are a lot of people who are capable of doing entry-level jobs with the right level of training.”

Highest-growth occupations

Through next year, according to the report, the highest growth in occupations primarily within the life sciences in Massachusetts is being projected for natural science research managers. Their employment is projected to grow 5.2% between 2018–2020, from 3,732 to 3,927 jobs.

Natural science research managers are defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as any life scientist who also is responsible for managing a team of people or managing a project. Most such professionals have attained doctoral degrees.

The four next-highest projected growth occupations are:

  • Biochemists and biophysicists — up 5.1%, from 4,533 to 4,764.
  • Chemists — up 4.4%, from 2,956 to 3,085.
  • Medical scientists — up 4.4%, from 11,663 to 12,177.
  • Other biological scientists — up 4%, from 4,272 to 4,443.

Those projections square away with what the report showed was the top job titles advertised for which PhD candidates were sought. More than 25% of the advertised positions were research/associate/principal scientist jobs, followed by senior scientist-scientific discipline (more than 10%), and bioinformatics/data scientist (just under 10%).

The report also included 2018–2020 national employment projections for seven computational occupations to be filled in part by life-sci professionals. The highest projected growth was for statisticians, set to rise 8.9%, from 3,224 to 3,512 jobs, followed by applications software developers, set to rise 6.8% from 30,067 to 32,115 jobs.

The Massachusetts life-sci employers that posted the highest numbers of jobs in 2018 were biopharma giants and a contract research organization (CRO). Takeda Pharmaceuticals led the list with a combined 1,900 openings when its more than 1,000 listings were combined with roughly 900 from Shire, which Takeda acquired for more than $60 billion in a deal completed last January. Next highest was Sanofi with more than 1,400 openings, followed by CRO Charles River Laboratories (800) and Pfizer (nearly 800).

The next five highest job postings generators were Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Biogen, bluebird bio, Bristol-Myers Squibb (newest R&D site), and Moderna.

Obstacles to hiring

The report included results from a survey of local life sciences companies. According to employers surveyed, the biggest obstacle to fulfilling their staffing needs was competition for talent from local companies, with 58% identifying it as either a “critical” (22%) or “significant” impact (36%).

The second-ranked obstacle at 31% was applicants lacking the necessary scientific or technical skills, with 27% terming it significant and 4%, critical. Third highest at 23% was applicants who lacked “soft” skills enabling them to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, with 20% calling it significant and 3%, critical.

Helping candidates develop soft skills was among the report’s recommendations for bridging the skills gap and further growing the state’s life-sci workforce. Other recommendations included better harmonizing what students learn with the skills employers need; improving awareness of life-sci career opportunities among students; prepare pre- and postdoctoral students for careers in industry; step up professional development to expand the existing pool of talent; and create innovative “pathways” enabling non-traditional candidates to enter the life sciences workforce.

The report also highlighted—without recommending any policy changes—an increase in the percentage of Massachusetts employees in all science and engineering occupations born outside the U.S., from 27.7% in 2010 to 29.5% in 2016, according to National Science Foundation data that did not break out the life sciences.

MassBioEd is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2001 by the life sciences industry group Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) to help grow and develop talent in Massachusetts’ life-sci workforce.