BioPharm Executive: Eli Lilly and Company CEO: Unqualified Scientists In The STEM Market

Published: Feb 26, 2014

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February 26, 2014

The tortured logic of our national STEM shortage.

By Karl Thiel for

John Leichleiter is at it again. Back in 2010, the Eli Lilly CEO made the media rounds complaining about our nation's desperate need to expand foreign worker visas through the H-1B program. I took him to task then, as much because of the odd choice of messenger as the message itself. (Raising the cap on visas is a discussion for another time).

Now Lechleiter is beating the STEM horse. In a recent op-ed for Forbes, he bemoans our supposed dearth of people trained in science, technology, engineering, and math. "Many employers are eager to hire," he says, yet they just can't find qualified candidates.

Really? Really?! Once again, it's hard to hear this message from this particular mouth. Lilly, after all, has laid off thousands of STEM-trained researchers, as have many other pharma companies. Is he making the case that all these people, recently in elite research positions, are now unhireable deadwood?

Interestingly, in the midst of this latest media blitz, Lechleiter appeared at an event hosted by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Beryl Benderly of Science got the chance to ask him about his position being "somewhat at variance" with the reality we've witnessed over the past several years. In a rambling and elliptical response, Lechleiter highlighted "what we miss sometimes by looking at employment numbers." Here is part of his response (hat tip to the Chemjobber Blog):

"We're working with dozens probably hundreds of partners, organizations doing everything from running clinical trials to providing us with discovery chemistry researchers that are typically run and operated and staffed by people who've had prior Big Pharma experience.... [They've learned from that and now they're creating value as entrepreneurs, so overall, I'm rather optimistic about the situation because I think the life sciences are just so well-disposed today for us to be discover and develop these new medicines. But there's no question the structure has changed a lot."

His response seems to suggest either that scientists have simply moved from Big Pharma to biotech (true for a few but not for most), or perhaps that structural changes make it possible to do the same research with fewer people (which, if true, contradicts his central point.) PhRMA CEO John Castellani also weighed in:

"If you look at just employment, you don't see what disciplines are rising or falling, so you have to look at that and you don't see the broader ecosystem as it becomes more and more distributed." He goes on to add that overall industry R&D spending has remained flat, suggesting that what's lost in one place is made up for elsewhere.

These answers boil down to, as Chemjobber puts it, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying employment numbers?" Now certainly if pharma research these days simply requires fewer chemists and more, say, IT people, then that might be a very disruptive shift yet still argue for an overall shortage of qualified STEM workers.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case. Wages for workers in computer and math fields have stagnated since 2000--hardly the outcome you'd expect when demand massively outstrips supply. A study released by the Economic Policy Institute this past summer suggested that more than a third of recent computer science graduates aren’t working in their chosen field, many because of a lack of jobs.

Defenders of conventional wisdom—those who say that the shortage is real and severe—seem to rely on two main arguments.

One is that we employ more STEM workers than we used to in past decades, so demand has really grown. (Answer: Yes, of course, and the number of workers to fill those new slots have grown too. Lots of things have changed since World War II. That still doesn't mean there's a shortage now). The second is that there will be a shortage, and we'd better be prepared.

This is what it really comes down to. Lechleiter, Castellani, and others make a wholly unconvincing argument that we're in a state of crisis, or even that one is looming. But it's hard to argue with the point that we should do a better job teaching kids math and science. So absolutely, let's get behind that, both inside the classroom and out, and work to make these subjects more engaging to youngsters. (Alan Alda's Flame Challenge is one great example of a way to make science more fun and accessible for kids--and their parents.)

In the meantime, however, the rhetoric about our supply crisis flies in the face of evidence, and some leading heralds like Lechleiter simply drench the message in irony. Young people, particularly as they advance in their academic career, will flock to STEM fields if they see a promising future there. So all these companies that supposedly are eager to hire should maybe just do it, and offer something other than stagnant wages.

-Karl Thiel

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