Does Boston Biotech Have a Career Navigation Problem?

by Susan Nemetz, October 2018
For those of us who have been in the industry since pre-DRG days, and have the wisdom and experience across the industry, there are many opportunities to mentor and network with today’s emerging generation of biotech executives. Now and then, we get the chance to speak with those who truly are the future generation – recent college graduates. Does Boston Biotech Have a Career Navigation Problem? Such was the case for me, earlier this month when I sat down with a young woman who was interested in consulting. Since The NemetzGroup model requires substantive industry experience, I knew we didn’t have a role for her at this time but, as a favor to a former client, I agreed to meet. What a gift! Not only was her enthusiasm and energy wonderful to see, our discussion crystalized for me one of the challenges addressing the talent gap in our Boston biopharma ecosystem: We need to paint a better picture of the many career paths (conventional and unconventional) that are possible. I’m sure that’s not news to you and that attracting and retaining talent is a high priority for all of our companies. The May 2018 MassBio ED jobs report stated that:
  • In 2017, the total amount of job listings exceeded 27,700, second only to 2016. Of those, STEM/technical jobs accounted for over 16,000.
  • 11,976 new jobs are forecast to be created between May 2017 – May 2023.
  • 83% of life sciences companies reported plans to expand their headcount in the next 12 months, consistent with the last two years.
  Keeping these employees is also a priority. Indeed, as a recent Globe article underscored, since 2012, the number of Massachusetts life sciences employees, “who have left their jobs voluntarily, typically with another job offer in hand … [has] more than doubled to 13 percent, the highest figure in a decade.”

We need to paint a better picture

This young woman had a neuroscience degree from a reputable liberal arts college. Her GPA reflected the intellectual firepower needed to go in many directions. Sounds like a great addition to one of our amazing biopharma companies, yes? Unfortunately, she didn’t want to start in a lab so she focused on joining a big management consulting firm where “you make a lot of money” (raised eyebrows), “see a lot of jobs” (read: millennial), and don’t have to commit to a path now that would limit her later (read: everyone). Fortunately, I was able to reframe her perspective and highlight the tremendous opportunity within the industry as opposed to through only the consulting lens (at least at this juncture in her career and even though consulting has been a professional gift for my experienced team and me). We talked about the thrill and significance of being “part of something important,” and we mapped various possible routes she might take, based on her skills, interests, and experience. (It became a matter of pride to me to ensure she appreciated what our industry had to offer!) But it made me realize how unfamiliar she was as a college grad about what it could mean to work in our industry – her solution to not knowing what was available was to get into management consulting, as opposed to actually going inside and seeing for herself, first hand. The banks and consulting firms flood college campuses early, laying out career opportunities and offering money, travel, and a chance to learn. Are we not doing enough of the same? Sometimes I wonder if we do our young people a disservice by encouraging commitment too early in their academic and early career pursuits. Often it is through experimentation and skill acquisition that they discover their true talents and passion and evolve to be the leaders our industry needs.

Mid-level people are not so different

During our conversation, I was also struck by how similar her view was to the way many mid-level people understand their career paths. For those who have a set of core skills acquired in one discipline, it can be hard to see how these can be applied elsewhere, either within their own companies or across the industry at large. Perhaps, we need a career map app within our industry to help people figure out how to take what they have and what they want to do, and consider multiple options from there? We have plenty of patient journey flow charts, is this really that different? Additionally, what if we all spent time helping these career travelers navigate a path that encouraged this exploration? Sure, there are specific roles that require a committed and dedicated path from the beginning. The chief medical officer needs to be an MD; the chief general counsel needs to be a lawyer; and the chief financial officer better know something about finance. Many other disciplines require something broader: curiosity, leadership, collaborative skills, scientific and business acumen and, increasingly, expertise with technology:
  • A scientist with strong leadership skills, the ability to understand clinical data, and a belief in the translation of the science to clinical practice can find satisfying roles in medical affairs.
  • A strong medical affairs professional who understands drug development (or the reverse) can find roles in program leadership.
  • Deep analytical skills in science or business can be applied to new product planning and marketing analytics, as well as business development.
  • Commercial experience with a scientific base is a superb resource for corporate development in an early stage company where “is this anything?” is often the most important question.

Let’s highlight what is possible

We need to help our talent – at all career stages – see the opportunity within the industry and map several possibilities to help them get to wherever it is they want to go. That may mean sharing our own unconventional journeys too. (If you had told me 20 years ago that I would be running a company of highly skilled consultants whose passion is helping clients navigate the complex commercialization process, collaborating on challenging work, solving problems, and still having a life — I would not have believed you. But here I am humble brag and all.) Perhaps, most important, rather than just looking for people to fill jobs, we should be focused on finding, creating, and sharing a variety of paths and opportunities that attract people. And, no offense to my colleagues in the brand name management consulting and banking firms, we need to also ensure that college graduates, with the raw material we so desperately need, don’t view it as a disappointment to go into industry directly. As for my new graduate friend, my understanding is that she has accepted a client service/data analytics role in a start-up team within a marketing services firm whose primary focus is studying and understanding the dynamics between patients and their healthcare providers. This firm wanted her scientific background and saw in her someone who could connect with their clients. What a great beginning role for this graduate. A small step removed but such important learning for her future role in this industry. We can all imagine how that will shape her thinking in all the right ways as she travels her path. Let’s keep an eye on her and encourage more of the same!