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Report: To expand, diversify biotech industry, look beyond the 4-year-degree

LabCentral, in Kendall Square, is a shared lab space for biotech startups. (PRNewsFoto/LabCentral)
LabCentral, in Kendall Square, is a shared lab space for biotech startups. (PRNewsFoto/LabCentral)

The story of Massachusetts biotech is often one of success — and for good reason. The number of jobs in the sector have increased by 131% over the last 15 years. That's compared to a 7% increase in the overall Massachusetts workforce.

Biotech jobs also generally pay well. An entry-level position is likely to fetch between $50,000 and $75,000, according to a new industry survey from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio).

But as the biotech industry looks to expand even further, to an estimated 40,000 additional workers by 2024, they have to bring on those who've traditionally been left out.

"This industry has been very slow to bring along persons of color, and people from disadvantaged communities in the success of this industry," MassBio CEO Joe Boncore said.

To quickly expand and diversify the workforce, Boncore said more companies have to look beyond the four-year degree. Out of 129 biotech companies surveyed, more than half said they're likely to hire qualified applicants for an entry-level position without a bachelor's degree.

Institutions across the state are responding to that demand. More community colleges are offering associate degrees and certificates in concentrations like biotech manufacturing. Employers are offering apprenticeships, which provide training through paid hands-on work.

"We need to just scale what we have already working," Boncore said. He's an advocate of so-called "stackable credentials" — or shorter-term training to quickly adapt to changes in the industry.

Just A Start, which runs a free nine-month biotech training program for adults, is planning to build a new lab and eventually triple their class size. They currently train 18 students in each cohort, the vast majority of whom are immigrants.

Miriam Ortiz, Just A Start's director of education, said they've had several new employers reach out to them in the last two years.

"Companies are at a pain point," Ortiz said. "They're recognizing that it's in their best interest to invest in this kind of programming."

While she's happy to see a growing enthusiasm from employers for programs like hers, she said simply placing workers in a job is shortsighted. Once hired, the experiences of workers and their upward mobility varies. She wants to see more people without four-year degrees reach management levels.

"Of course there have been students that have been able to move, Ortiz said. "A big predictor of that is the company's readiness to support them."

Ortiz is urging biotech companies to strengthen their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as they're rapidly expanding their workforces, but said "it's incremental and it's going to take a while."

Yasmin Amer Twitter Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.

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