Workforce shortages in biotechnology, part II. How do we fill the pipeline?

<< Return to the Archive

Share to: 
Sandra Porter

In part I, I wrote about the shortage of technicians in the biotechnology industry and the general awareness that this problem is getting worse. This part will address the challenge of getting more students into programs that will prepare them for jobs in the biotech field. I've also been asked to write a bit more about finding jobs in companies, that post will be a bit later. Before proceeding, there are two points that need a bit of discussion. The first point is the whether there's a shortage at all and the second applies to the kind of shortage.

It's hard to see the forest when you're deep in the woods

Biotech workforce shortages are not distributed evenly. When you live in an area where companies are laying off large numbers of people, the idea of a shortage is a bit difficult to accept. Certainly, the people in Rhode Island might be skeptical. When a large employer like Amgen cut 20% of the local work force last fall, 300 people ended up on the streets looking for work.

These kinds of events and the uncertainty in the biotech field make it challenging for community colleges with biotech programs to enthusiastically sell the programs or work hard to recruit new students. Consequently, when I write about workforce shortages, keep in mind those shortages are found in areas, like California, Boston, and North Carolina. Areas like Seattle, where the main emphasis is on research, don't employee as many people. The companies who are involved in biotech manufacturing are the ones with the greater workforce needs.

Shortage of what?
The other point that needs clarification is the type of person who's in demand. When the biotech companies say there's a workforce shortage, they mean that there's a shortage of skilled technicians, particularly in manufacturing. It's a bit funny and maybe a bit sad, that when reporters say that there's a shortage of scientists, some people interpret this as a shortage of Ph.D. level investigators. In industry, the word "scientist" has a broader meaning. In academics, you're only considered a scientist if you have a Ph.D., in industry, you're a scientist if science is what you're doing. Technicians with 2 year community college degrees (and sometimes a 4 year degree, too) are the people who are in demand.

"Biotechnology? Oh, you need a Ph.D. to do that!"
Still, the misconception that you need a Ph.D. to work in a scientific field might be a problem. If the general public views science as an occupation for the elite, students might be reluctant to take science courses. In biotech, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the most successful graduates from our biotech program were students who had done poorly in their large lecture weed-them-out chemistry-type courses, but had a good grounding in common sense and an ability to work with their hands.

As I wrote before, we have lots of data showing that community colleges can teach bio-technicians the skills that they need. And, we know that those skills are needed (at least in some regions of the country). But, we also know the enrollments in biotech programs are low and the schools are not graduating students in the numbers needed by the industry.

How can we educate the trained workforce that companies need? What are some possible solutions?

Some ideas that have been discussed and sometimes tried have been these:
1. Community colleges could recruit more students by providing outreach to high schools.
2. Universities could offer more training in biotech lab skills.
3. Partnerships between colleges and community colleges

Can outreach to high schools help?
I attended a meeting recently, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC), called "Educating Biotechnicians for Future Industry Needs." During the meeting, one of the NSF program officers queried the attendees from community college biotech programs. He asked if any program had 50% or more of their students directly from high school. Only one person could answer "yes." He asked if schools had tried recruiting from the local high schools. This time everyone answered "yes."
Why then do community colleges find it so hard to recruit high schools students to their biotech programs?

This might not be a popular thing to say, but I think it's hard for community colleges to recruit high school students because the community colleges have been reaching out to the wrong high school students. I have been on advisory boards to high school programs for several years now. In my experience, the teachers who start these programs are all above average. They are highly motivated, dedicated and smart, and they do not send their students to community colleges. These programs and the teachers who run them tend to attract the best students and then send them on to four-year colleges and Universities. In my ten years running a community college biotech program, we only got one student from a high school biotech program. I support science education in any form, and I'm sure that having the community colleges work with the high schools is good for the community. But however, good hearted, these outreach efforts fail to translate into increased enrollments in the community colleges.

Would four year colleges and Universities be interested in providing job training?
Four year colleges and Universities could fill the gap and provide students with job training and more career guidance. But they don't. Some schools and faculty don't believe job training is their responsibility. Lab courses are expensive, so some Universities cut costs by cutting their lab courses. Sometimes the lab courses fail to give students much practice with skills like making solutions and buffers, making media, or culturing cells. Further, they don't always have the right equipment. Many community college programs have appropriate equipment in place - things like tissue culture hoods, fermentors, autoclaves, gel boxes, HPLC's, and pH meters- but these things aren't always available in University teaching labs.

Partnerships between community colleges and Universities
A promising path would be for Universities and community colleges to work together. The community colleges could teach the lab courses and provide hands-on practice with laboratory skills. The Universities could provide students with dual credit. I think this kind of path would benefit everyone. Universities could offer lab courses (at the community colleges) taught by experienced faculty with industry-standard equipment. Biotech companies could hire from a larger pool of skilled workers. Community college students would have an easier time transferring course credits. Of course, this path presumes that institutions are willing to work together and support the best interests of the students. This is a tough path when everyone has turf to protect.

Ultimately the best answer, I think, is to improve science and career education across the board and make all students aware of the many opportunities in scientific fields. Until that happens, we are likely to continue with this strange situation of having students spend 6 years of college preparing for entry-level jobs.