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Dearth of Life Science Workers Threatens to Derail Mass. Jobs Goal, Stakeholders Say

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BOSTON — Massachusetts’ business, academic, and government leaders last week agreed that the state must quickly develop new life sciences workers if the industry is to achieve the 1.3 percent annual employment growth projected through 2014 in a recent study.
 
According to these stakeholders, several factors are impeding Massachusetts’ ability to organically grow the life sciences workforce it needs, including the state’s high cost of living, and especially housing; its worsening traffic; a dearth of efforts to draw school-aged children into life sciences careers; fractiousness among the schools, businesses, and government agencies involved in the state’s life sciences industry; and a weak marketing effort that doesn’t adequately sell the state’s quality of life to potential transplants.
 
“It is now incumbent upon us to follow through on everything you have given us. We will do that,” promised the state’s top job attraction official, Daniel O’Connell, secretary of Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
 
O’Connell made that promise Feb. 1 when he addressed the Massachusetts Life Sciences Workforce Summit, a day-long conference that drew more than 200 life sciences business, academic, and government leaders to the University of Massachusetts campus here.
 
O’Connell also promised he would soon make an announcement that would please them. While he gave no details, the state next week is expected to announce it would start accepting applications for matching grants under three programs totaling $12 million approved last October by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the agency that oversees the state’s life-sciences advancement effort. 
 
UMass held the conference to announce preliminary findings from its Life Sciences Talent Initiative, a $250,000, year-long study of the state’s biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device workforce carried out by the university’s Donahue Institute.
 
According to the institute, the state’s life-sciences workforce is projected to grow at an average 1.3 percent each year through 2014, double the rate of the state’s overall workforce (see related story, this issue).
 
A consensus of conferees, however, warned that the life science workforce will not grow as much as projected unless the state’s public and private sectors team up to remove obstacles to job creation.
 
Lynn Griesemer, executive director of Donahue, said the comments from summit attendees would help the institute shape the policy recommendations it plans to deliver in June along with the final results of its workforce study.
 
“We’ve only just begun,” Griesemer said.
 
‘Love to Blow Things Up’
 
Mary Grant, president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, faulted the state for lagging behind most states in the per-capita amount it spends on the public UMass system, and on state colleges like hers. She noted Massachusetts’ low ranking compared with other states in its per-capita outlays on public higher education: the state ranked 46th last year, according to the nonprofit Boston Indicators Project, down 9 percent from the 2000 fiscal year.
 
“That’s a tide that we have to turn, and I believe that we will,” Grant said.
 
Speaking with BioRegion News after her remarks, Grant noted that Gov. Patrick has proposed a 3-percent increase in spending toward the operating budgets of state-funded colleges and universities, while the state Board of Higher Education has called for a 7-percent increase.
 
“It’s early in the budget process, so we’ll se what happens over the next few weeks,” Grant said.
 
Grant said Massachusetts could learn from neighboring New York, which recently spent more than $1 billion to develop centers of excellence in the life sciences and several other high-tech fields. Those centers married the State University of New York system to businesses and nonprofit institutions focused on the same tech specialty.
 
Gov. Patrick and UMass President Jack Wilson said that the state’s public higher-education sector will benefit from the governor’s proposal to borrow $2 billion for a series of capital improvements to every state-funded college and university. The proposal requires voter approval in a referendum set for this November’s Election Day ballot.
 
Grant was echoed by many speakers during the summit when she urged state officials to develop new education curricula that expose students in high school and even grade school to life-sciences careers. She cited a partnership between her college, three other higher education institutions, and public schools in the state’s Berkshire-Pittsfield region in which third graders visit the campuses to learn about possible science careers.
 
“Third graders love to blow things up. If you want to get a third grader excited about science, bring them into a lab, and then ask them to tell you how it went. You will get these amazing letters back. They will describe to you – in third grade – how this was the best day of their lives,” Grant said, a comment repeated often at the summit by speakers seeking to make the same point.
 
Nancy Snyder, president and CEO of Commonwealth Corporation, a Boston-based workforce-development consultancy, recalled how forensic science has become more popular than the life sciences among schoolchildren visiting her office recently, largely due to the television drama CSI.
 
“They watch CSI and they want to be in forensic sciences, but they were not taking top-level math and science courses,” Snyder said. “They didn’t know what was needed. There is a tremendous amount we can do with the assets in this state.”
 
During a luncheon address, Gov. Patrick told conferees the state would address workforce development needs through “centers of innovation” to be created statewide as part of his $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Initiative. Legislative leaders have promised to wrap up their chambers’ reviews of the bill and take action by mid-February.
 
In defending his bill and his projection of the number of jobs it would create, Patrick argued that Massachusetts must play a greater role in nurturing the life sciences industry than it did a generation ago for the information-technology and software industries that once filled the state’s Route 128 corridor, until the industry migrated to California’s Silicon Valley, capitalizing on that region’s larger workforce and more targeted economic-development programs.
 
“I refuse to let that happen, and so should you,” Patrick told the summit crowd.
 
While summit attendees said they welcome the governor’s proposal, several who spoke at four breakout sessions contended that the bill was only one of several actions the state could take to advance life science-workforce development.
 
Chris Gabrieli, managing partner of the venture-capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, said the state needed to consolidate its far-flung menu of programs and services to life sciences companies into a single “one-stop shop” as some other states have done.
 

“We’re a net exporter of life-saving therapies and life-saving equipment. And that makes [the industry] not morally neutral. This is not computers. It’s not cars. It’s not steel. It’s something better.”

One such center is the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which assists life sciences businesses with site selection, workforce development, and other services. It works with businesses of all sizes, unlike Massachusetts’ proposed innovation centers, which would focus on early-stage companies.
 
“There’s not the sense that you know one place to go. You would not know necessarily one place to go to in the life sciences area,” said Gabrieli, who moderated a breakout session focused on developing a statewide strategy for sustaining Massachusetts’ life sciences workforce.
 
North Carolina is among states that have competed successfully for life sciences jobs in recent years by shepherding businesses through the battery of state and local programs available for locating or expanding their workforces, according to Suzanne Bump, secretary of Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.
 
“We have a lot of catching up to do with regard to other states, which have been able to build up more cohesive workforce development systems,” Bump lamented.
 
One collaboration is emerging. Schools have teamed up with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation to develop a common database of life sciences-education programs. The new Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Resource Center, or MassBioEd, will be accessible at www.massbioed.org when the foundation, an offshoot of the 500-member Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the state’s life sciences industry group, launches the website in March.
 
Jack Wilson, president of UMass, told BioRegion News that his university is working to model such cohesion on an academic level through campus collaborations on given medical specialties. The university’s Amherst and Worcester campuses have focused on stem-cell research, while the Worcester and Lowell campuses have teamed up on medical-device development, he said.
 
“We’re putting together leadership groups that think about the big picture issues, and then groups around each of the issues in the life sciences that are more focused on the practitioners, the individuals who are faculty members and staff members,” Wilson said.
 
What they learn flows to groups within UMass that oversee curriculum planning, and those groups report to the vice president for economic development, and to a new trustee committee on science, technology, and research.
 
“We’re doing a lot to capture this energy, giving industry an opportunity to speak to us about things that they’d love to see us do. It also gives us a chance to speak to industry about things we’d like to see them do,” Wilson said.
 
‘It is Not Cheap’
 
At another breakout panel session devoted to identifying and addressing obstacles to life sciences job creation, an AstraZeneca executive identified high living costs as a key reason why one-quarter to one-third of all employees approved for positions at the company’s research facility in Waltham, Mass., have turned down relocations there in the years since it opened in 1995.
 
For those employees, the Boston region’s plusses such as its concentration of research jobs, its school systems, and diversity were outweighed by its high cost of housing and worsening traffic, said John Hennessy, executive director and general manager of AZ’s Boston-area operations.
 
“In general the region is perceived to be very strong, but it is not cheap,” Hennessy said. “I think there are opportunities to promote it even better.”
 
Hennessy said about 20 percent of Waltham’s workforce of 500 research employees had to be relocated from other places because the company could not find the workers it needed locally.
 
AZ’s response, he added, has been to offer cost-of-living advance payments an average of 15 percent above salary during the first three years after employees relocate to Waltham from elsewhere.
 
The Waltham workforce is part of AZ’s 1,500 employees in Massachusetts; the large remainder work from the pharma giant’s manufacturing and regional sales facilities in Westborough, Mass.
 
Tina Brooks, undersecretary for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, said the Patrick administration would soon address high housing costs by ramping up a program that the state and the Federal Home Loan and Mortgage Corporation have been working on since late 2006 in which employers contribute up to $1,000 toward the down payments by employees on their first houses.
 
The first such grants will be made over the next 60 days, said Brooks, who also serves as O’Connell’s senior housing policy advisor.
 
David McLaughlin, executive director of Boston World Partnerships, a city-created, nonprofit economic development agency formed to promote the city, said life science was one of four key industries his group would target. The other three are higher education, financial services, and “creative” sectors such as the arts.
 
McLaughlin, a former marketing director for the Boston Redevelopment Agency, said the state’s life sciences industry would fare better with some 21st-century marketing aimed at connecting professionals through online as well as in-person networking – especially alumni of the Boston region’s colleges and universities who left Massachusetts for jobs elsewhere.
 
Zoltan Csimma, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme, said Massachusetts’ growing minority student population should be among target audiences for any future life sciences marketing efforts. “I don’t think that industry itself has as much in the way of minority representation as other industries.
 
Csimma, chairman of the Life Sciences Talent Initiative Advisory Committee, said the lack of minority candidates has impeded Genzyme’s ability to fill the 400 to 600 job openings it creates each year, despite the lure of salaries averaging more than $90,000 a year, with bonuses. Despite that problem, Genzyme still managed to hire 1,400 people companywide last year, he said.
 
Tracy Ware, a biology professor at Salem State College, said more of her school’s 350 biology majors would be likely to establish careers in Massachusetts if they were wedded to the area though paid internships open to students younger than the junior year of college.
 
Mark Leuchtenberger, president and CEO of Targanta Therapeutics, based in Quebec and Indianapolis, quipped that the state should view its life-sciences sector as something akin to a casino, with corporate giants and startups akin to big- and small-time gamblers.
 
“We may win and lose on individual therapies, but the house” — in this case, the state — “always wins,” he said.
 
To be sure, Leuchtenberger, who is also vice president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said that business, academic, and government leaders should argue beyond the numbers of jobs created or state money spent as they go about promoting the life sciences.
 
“We’re a net exporter of life-saving therapies and life-saving equipment. And that makes [the industry] not morally neutral,” said Leuchtenberger. “This is not computers. It’s not cars. It’s not steel. It’s something better.
 
“I think that’s the opportunity: To get students who are coming through the system to understand that this is more than a job,” he added. “It is meaningful work that can add a huge amount of meaning to the world and also to people’s lives.”

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