Workforce shortages in biotechnology, part I. Why is this a problem?

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Sandra Porter
Workforce shortages are a growing problem in the biotech industry. Communities are concerned that a lack of trained workers will either keep companies away or cause companies to move. If companies do have to move, it's likely those jobs might be lost forever, never to return. According to Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, now a professor at UC-Berkeley, biotech companies that can't hire in the U.S. will recruit foreign workers or open research centers overseas (Luke Timmerman, Seattle PI). The reason for concern is that biotech jobs, in general, are pretty good. They pay well and people work in a nice environment. A 2006 study by Batelle (this is a pdf file) found that the average biotech job pays $65,775 a year, compared with $39,003 in the overall private sector. Often, companies also help fund continuing education and options for advancement. Many people working in biotech companies also enjoy the work because they know their products can help people. I don't know if other companies do this, but Immunex used to give everyone in the company a chance to read thank-you letters from patients who were helped by Enbrel®. These are jobs that we don't want to lose. If the jobs are so great, why is there a shortage of employees? First, the number of students graduating with science degrees, who are ready to enter the workforce, is too small. A 2005 NSF study (cited by the Seattle PI) found that the number of students graduating with science and engineering degrees isn't increasing at the same rate as the number of jobs. In fact, the numbers are still about the same as they were a decade ago, with only 12 percent of college graduates entering science and engineering fields. According to the Boston Globe, only 5.4 percent of the bachelors degrees in 2005, in Massachusetts, were related to the life sciences. A further problem, is that many of the students, who are graduating with science degrees, do not have the hands-on lab skills that are needed in the companies. Those students end up in community college biotech programs finishing another year or two of school before they can go find a job. Are we suffering from educational blindspots? Cliff Mintz writes that the workforce shortage shouldn't be a surprise.
Despite what the experts and pundits would have you believe, the etiology of the workforce shortages in the life sciences industry is easy to decipher. Put simply, most universities and colleges don't believe that job training or career development should be part of their academic initiatives or educational missions. Likewise, companies don't feel that education or training should fall within their purview-according to industry executives, college and professional school graduates ought to be sufficiently prepared to enter the workforce after they complete their education.
Cliff says, and many community college instructors would agree, that undergraduate institutions are simply not teaching the right things. Why about reverse articulation? Community colleges have proven that given the chance, they can do a wonderful job with training students for careers in biotechnology. But, right now, it's clear that they are not educating enough students to meet industry's needs. Why not? The numbers of students entering biotech programs is too small. A large fraction of community college programs struggle with low enrollments. When I taught in the Seattle Central Community College biotech program, we had this challenge, too. The students that we got were great, but like many other community colleges, most of our students were older and sometimes over half of them already had bachelors' degrees. This phenomenon is so common that colleges have a name for it: "reverse articulation." Get your biology degree at a University then go to a community college to learn job skills. This situation is great for community college instructors and I liked it quite a bit. The students were mature, smart and motivated. They had good attitudes and wanted jobs. They already knew much of the theory behind our labs and they were successful, many did get those jobs. I enjoyed teaching them and I know instructors at other schools who felt the same way. But worried about my non-degreed students. Some of them spent too much time comparing themselves to the large number of semi-graduate students and I think this may have increased our attrition rates higher than they should have been. Why isn't reverse articulation the answer? Despite the wonderful features of reverse articulation —; motivated, mature students —; this route will never produce produce graduates in large enough numbers to meet the needs of the biotech industry. The pool of potential students is just too small. Even though community college tuition is low, it's too expensive to ask a large number of students to spend an extra year or two going to school to learn lab techniques. Also many jobs in biotech don't even require a bachelor's degree much less a bachelor's degree and two more years of school, as long as a student knows how to do a certain number of lab things - like tissue culture, sterile technique, pipetting, and making media. Certainly, the industry is missing out on talented people who would be well-served by a community college education and a more direct path into the workforce. In theory, students shouldn't have needed to spend 6 yrs sorting out their lives and attending two colleges before getting a job. Part II. How do we connect community colleges with a larger market? To be posted soon.

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