Exclusive: Here’s What’s Happening in the California Life Sciences Job Market

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California’s life science sector is a major player in the state’s job creation and economic development. In 2016, life science companies in California employed more than 360,000 professionals. In 2018, the Biocom Institute and the California Life Sciences Institute surveyed many of these employers and examined 9,900 statewide life science job postings to assemble a report on California Workforce Trends in the Life Science Industry. It’s the organizations’ third report on the subject since 2014, and it serves as a handy snapshot of employment drivers within the industry as well as challenges facing employers as they try to develop and engage staff and address evolving company and societal needs.

BioSpace recently sat down with the executives from both institutes to take a closer look at some of the report’s data and get their take on the current life science industry employment environment in California.

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BioSpace: How would you describe today’s life science job market in California?

Lori Lindburg, President and CEO of the California Life Sciences Institute: As in years past, the life science industry continues to be a tremendous job engine for the state of California. As you see in the report, it employs well over 300,000 individuals, and that number is actually closer to 1 million if you count all the positions that support the industry.

We heard from our survey respondents that 97 percent of them–across all the life science sectors—had hired within the last 12 months. Another 88 percent anticipated expanding their employee headcount across major functional areas during the next 12 months. These areas include R&D, quality and regulatory affairs, and compliance.

But I would also describe the current market as one that is in crisis, particularly at more senior positions. We have very low unemployment and also other factors that are making it very difficult for life science employers to find experienced talent.

BioSpace: Your report noted that teamwork/collaboration, quality assurance/control, biotechnology, chemistry and biology are the top skills California life science employers are looking for in job candidates. Are they finding it difficult to recruit candidates with these skills?

Liisa Bozinovic, Executive Director of the Biocom Institute: We found it pretty interesting that a soft skill topped the list. That’s definitely an area where employers continue to lament the fact that they are struggling to find individuals. It’s actually easier to train employees on the technical stuff than it is on soft skills. If they don’t walk in the doors with those, it’s much harder for them to assimilate.

The top in-demand skills identified from the job postings lined up with the data we gathered from our HR professional survey. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents said that they have difficulty filling regulatory affairs and compliance positions. And 30 percent said they have trouble filling quality positions. So, those are the in-demand jobs, but they’re also very difficult to fill.

Related: Is your next big career move in California? Check out BioSpace's life sciences job board for hundreds of opportunities. 

BioSpace: The report also noted that the skills life science employers are looking for have changed over time. What do you think is the biggest factor driving this evolution?

Lindburg: The exponential speed and degree of technological advancement within the industry is driving some of the change in skills. It’s a very exciting time, and discoveries are happening so fast with innovations like CRISPR and breakthroughs in fields such as computational biology. These are not only revolutionizing the industry, but also its talent and skill needs. Life science employers are going to have a need for professionals with expertise in a broad range of cutting-edge technologies including next-gen sequencing, data analytics, 3D printing, Ai, CAD design and more.

Another factor driving the change in skill needs is the increasing overlap and convergence of life science and tech as biotech life science product and service operations adopt technology. It’s creating a demand for employees who can really work at that interface of the two industries. The Affordable Care Act has also had an impact as it has changed the U.S. healthcare and regulatory environment. As Liisa pointed out, we saw over and again when you combine the top occupations you find quality and regulatory positions moving into a top spot.

BioSpace: The report noted a few additional factors contributing to recruitment challenges for California life science employers, including competition with tech companies, lack of housing affordability and long commutes. What are employers doing to combat these factors?

Lindburg: It’s definitely a buyer’s market right now, and job candidates are in control to decide where they want to work. Employers are having to be very creative and offer things such as significant sign-on bonuses for both senior and junior positions. They’re also offering things like flexible schedules, telecommuting and other perks to try to attract and retain talent by easing the pain of long commutes and childcare issues. There is also a growing awareness among employers of how to manage Millennials more effectively. Employers have learned that Millennials want to be developed and promoted through mentoring and networking opportunities.

As far as the competition from tech, life science employers seem to be more optimistic about Generation Z. This generation appears to be seeking more purpose and meaning both inside and outside of work. That’s one of the areas where biotech can really trump tech: it’s ability to attract mission-driven people who value pursuits like changing the face of healthcare and saving millions of lives.

And as far as infrastructure and housing issues, our industry is working with state and public officials to advocate for housing near public transportation, shuttle services and more. And we’d like to see more employers address their talent issues through innovative industry and academic collaborations. There are a lot of people within the vicinity of these clusters, especially under-represented students, who would benefit from the opportunity to gain early career exposure. Work-based learning experiences such as internships are key for inspiring and developing the future life science workforce.

BioSpace: Your report mentions that executives “continue to lament the lack of preparedness of students coming out of university programs,” particularly when it comes to knowledge of how the industry works, its culture, the importance of soft skills and teamwork, and the basics of product development and fundamentals of business. What can life science students do to ensure they’re gaining the knowledge and skills employers actually want them to have?

Bozinovic: Internships are the holy grail for that. In the report, you’ll see that companies are looking for candidates who have three to five years of experience. There are a significant number of positions available for students with zero to two years of experience as well—especially if they have completed an internship. Informational interviews are also a really good way to learn about the industry. It’s a really easy way to meet people and start building your network. Just approach a company and ask for 20 minutes of someone’s time. As long as you’re respectful of that time limit, you can get a lot of good information that way.

Lori mentioned industry academic partnerships earlier, and students should seek those out and take advantage of whatever their school has to offer in terms of bringing the industry to the university. Sometimes this is in the form of lecture series or even the opportunity to take tours. If a life science company opens their doors for manufacturing day, take advantage of that. And consider picking up a course or two at a community college. That can get you the hands-on practical skills the industry really wants and give you a leg up for jobs.

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