The Gap between CSU-Based Learning and Jobs

We’re in the midst of drafting a new three-year strategic plan.  One of the main aims of the CSUPERB program is “to close the gap between CSU-based learning and biotechnology industry practice.”  When we constructed this aim in 2007, we acknowledged that very few CSU students or faculty have worked in a commercial, product-focused life science setting. We recognized that most CSU life sciences graduates would be unfamiliar with the regulatory environment in which biotechnology companies work.  We recognized that most students, faculty, and even Science magazine writers (who continue to call them “alternative” careers!) do not understand that STEM graduates work in many, if not all, functional units of a typical life sciences company.  We understood that we had few industry-relevant courses, degree programs or workshops for STEM students preparing to find jobs outside of basic research settings.  We recognized our faculty and administrators, who serve as mentors for CSU students, might be unfamiliar with how companies carry out life science research, product development and commercialization projects. In 2007 we agreed that these gaps were things we could address as a program.

Most of the projects CSUPERB took on these past three years were the result of feedback from and surveys of California’s life science employers.  We heard over and over again that companies, research institutions and medical schools wanted CSU graduates to have experience doing team-based research. Check. CSUPERB continues to support student research experiences because we also find these experiences correlate with increased student success and graduation rates. We heard consistently from companies that graduates needed to understand budgets and the principles of project management. So over the past three years CSUPERB sponsored Career Networking Sessions at the annual symposium for students, developed new post-baccalaureate certificates in quality assurance and clinical trials management, worked with BIOCOM to develop the Life Science Immersion program to offer a business primer for STEM graduates, helped Professional Science Masters programs to make connections with the life sciences industry, and, overall, involved more industry professionals in CSUPERB programs and projects.

There is no question that the environment in which CSUPERB works changed profoundly with the economic downturn.  Despite deep budgetary cuts to higher education, the political rhetoric around the need for MORE science and engineering graduates escalated. Instead our graduates from 2010 (or 1995!) find that companies are failing, merging and downsizing and, as a result, biotechnology research and development jobs are difficult to land.  I will repeat, yet again, even highly skilled, successful postdocs are finding academic positions exceedingly difficult to get. We’ve tried to keep the Biocompass website reflective and true to the job market by featuring California jobs (quality assurance, clinical trials, regulatory, etc.) that are out there.  But our quality assurance certificate, developed with industry advice, did not meet enrollment targets in two offerings last year.  There was and is a gap in what job seekers, recent graduates and students want to do and what jobs are available.  Likewise there is a persistent disconnect between corporate reports of STEM worker shortages against the context of widely available STEM talent in the U.S. There has been much ink spilled and hot air spewed on why this might be, but I found two opinion articles during the Thanksgiving break that try to hone in on the forces behind today’s STEM job market.

The first, in the New York Times Magazine,  reviews the changes in the job market and the expectation that career progression is still linear in America. That is, the “1955” expectation that you should get a college degree, land an entry-level position, work hard, get promotions and garner salary increases until you retire. Adam Davidson reviews the new “rules for success” in today’s job market.  He focuses on the need for special technical skills (like stem cell culture or wireless device programming), in addition to a college degree, much like Vivek Wadhwa did in an article I referred to in an earlier blog post. They both talk about the rocky career roads ahead for both new graduates and older workers and the need for life-long learning and adjustments.

The second, from the Wall Street Journal takes on the culture change that Vivek Wadhwa attributed to Silicon Valley, but might also be pervasive in today’s corporate hiring strategies.  Peter Cappelli argues that companies are increasingly walking away from the concept of “on-ramping,” that is, hiring workers who fit 80% of the job needs and committing to on-the-job training to cover the other 20% (my made-up percentages inserted). Unlike Wadhwa, Cappelli is cranky and impatient with corporate America (he is a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School).  I tend to lean toward Cappelli’s viewpoint. I was exasperated when a vice president at a large, multinational corporation based in the midwest told a national audience his company faced severe problems in hiring qualified, entry-level STEM graduates, especially with foreign language skills and diverse backgrounds.  When I pushed back, he admitted they don’t recruit in California.  My (perhaps incorrect) interpretation is they didn’t want to pay the recruitment and relocation costs needed to hire from California. This corporate leader’s statement adds to the perception that there is a lack of qualified graduates, when in reality his statement reflects a regional workforce issue and/or a corporate business decision.

On the bright side BIO recently acknowledged there are roles for the biotechnology industry in addressing these gaps. CSUPERB will continue our work to reduce the gaps in biotechnology education, training and perception as well.  Even NIH is exploring the effect its policies have on the biomedical workforce.  Workforce development is necessarily a complex partnership between educators, employers (corporate, non-profit or academic!) and policy makers.  Here’s hoping 2012 brings more candor, reliance on facts, and willingness to work on these gaps together.  The opportunity costs are incalculable.

References for further reading:

Austin (November 23, 2011) Perspective: Two New Studies Address Jobs in STEM. Science Careers

Cappelli (October 23, 2011) Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need. Wall Street Journal. See comments and follow-up also.

Carnevale, Smith & Melton (2011) STEM Report. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Ruark & Graham (November 2011) Jobs Americans Can’t Do? The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage.  Federation for Fair Immigration Reform.

    This entry was posted in Life Science Careers, Opinion and tagged , , , by Susan Baxter. Bookmark the permalink.

    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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