This is an interesting article in Nature Biotechnology that I'm trying to figure out whether I believe. It's a combination of interviews with managers across biopharma along with an analysis of open-position job ads from thousands of sources. What the authors are trying to do is figure out what sorts of skills employers in this field are looking for, and whether that's changed.
First, let's go to what they found, then we can start the arguing. The quantitative data from all those job postings is presumably pretty solid. The degree-required distribution shows that (weirdly) 14% of the posted openings require only high-school level education, which makes me wonder if those positions, whatever they are, really qualify as "jobs in the biopharma industry" as opposed to "jobs in the hauling stuff around" industry. Past that, half of the total openings are bachelor's-level. 12% ask for a graduate or professional degree (I think that they have master's and PhD in there together), and most of the rest were unspecified.
As for the skills listed as wanted, far and away the most mentioned was. . .chemistry. "Clinical research" runs a distant second. When they analyzed the names of the positions themselves, "Medical/clinical laboratory technician" was number one, with "Chemist" close behind. These are broad terms, which surely accounts for their dominance, but the number of positions using the word "Biologist" is still only about a third of those that say "Chemist".
Now the paper switches to what they learned from all those manager interviews. Here's where I start doing the Spock-eyebrow thing:
Hiring and workforce deployment trends were consistent across company sizes ranging from small (less than 25 employees) to large (over 1,000), but there was a surprising anecdotal finding that was supported across the interview set. Whereas historically, large companies have tended to invest in workforce training, and small companies have sought employees who were sufficiently trained to 'hit the ground running', the lean human capacity models practiced by large global pharmaceutical companies have resulted in a reluctance to hire untrained individuals by companies of all sizes. . .
. . .The introductory analysis highlights a common theme addressed by all interviewees and points to a clear shift in the industry's demand for talent away from the senior scientist positions that tend to be more highly specialized and narrowly focused, to a talent pool consisting of individuals who have interdisciplinary academic training with the ability to work broadly across multiple areas and in project teams where not everyone has to be an expert in everything. Specific skill sets desired among scientists, engineers, clinicians and management teams who work within the industry include strong communications skills that facilitate the translation of the science effectively to stakeholders, a commercial market-based mindset versus an academic mindset, the ability to apply skills to real world problems, comfort with big data management, the capacity to be creative and the willingness to push boundaries.
OK, let me blow a whistle at this point. All that stuff is hiring-manager-speak, straight from HR training slides. If you ever hear someone, an actual human out there in the wild, conversationally use the phrase "facilitate the translation of the science effectively to stakeholders", you should run. If there's no ready exit, well, I hope you've read a lot of those books about how to deal with zombies, 'cause they're finally going to come in handy. What I'm saying is that this stuff is what such people always tell you that they want, on paper. "The ability to apply skills to real-world problems"? You don't say! Trying to draw conclusions from these phrases is like analyzing the stuff written on the windshields of used cars.
I adduce this line from the article as evidence of cluelessness: "Hiring managers and industry leaders made little mention of gender differences or preferences in the interviews." Did they not? After endless hours of training to drive home the point that they can get fired for doing anything of the sort? Come on.
The article ends with three mushy calls for action. The first is to "further develop and increase the scope of public-private and industry-academic internships, cooperative fellowships, and training programs". Hard to find anyone who's going to take a strong stand against that one. The second is "to build a national life science certification program that includes deep dives into topics such as regulations, clinical trial design and process validation". I'm not so sure about that one. Who runs this, and who pays for it? Do you have to have one of their pieces of paper in order to get a job in those areas? Who gets to decide the curriculum?
But it's the final recommendation that's going to set some people off. It "focuses on the need to recognize the global nature of the industry and the need for strong cross-cultural fertilization and job mobility across national borders." And once again, I come to this topic as someone who actually favors immigration of smart, competent, well-trained people into the US. But I swear, there are a lot of people who seem bent on making me squirm as much as possible while holding that position, because I can't help but think that many of them hold it because they're looking for the cheapest technically qualified labor force that they can get. It's not like I like the look of some of the people on the other side of the issue, either, because just because it's bad policy to fiddle things to drive wages down, it's bad policy to rig the system to keep them high, too. I think that there should be a market for labor, and its price should move up and down, and be therefore somewhat self-correcting. No one should get a thumb on the scale. Yeah, I'm an idealist.
But this is the first time I've heard "cross-cultural fertilization" brought up as a reason, I have to say. Personally, I think that a reasonable amount of immigration is a good thing for American society (if only we could define "reasonable"), and that we should favor letting in people who are smart, competent, and hard-working. I'd like to have new citizens who want to be part of the economy, and who can appreciate the ideals that this country was founded on. "Cross-cultural fertilization" is a bit too nebulous for me. I worry that it's one of those feel-good diversity slogans designed to make anyone who complains about it sound like a Neanderthal. Maybe I'm showing my prejudice against Neanderthals by saying that, though. I should check with HR.
No, this survey is starting to sound a lot like that PriceWaterhouseCooper thing I wrote about here and here. "Gosh, we just can't seem to find anyone to hire!" Keep an eye on this sort of thing; we're going to see more of it.