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Skills Shortage Hits Biosciences

Jennifer LeClaire  (September 2010)
The Area Development Front Line series offers insight into the innovative strategy being taken by businesses that are succeeding, intelligence on locations that are deploying winning policy to attract investment and talent, and reports on the industry trends that are affecting and shaping the global business climate now and into the future.
There is no shortage of workers standing in line for medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing jobs - but finding workers with the right skills is challenging the biosciences cluster.

"It's surprisingly difficult for medical manufacturing companies to find skilled workers, even in the current economic climate," says Baiju Shah, CEO of BioEnterprise, a nonprofit group in Cleveland working to build the region's biosciences industry. "There's not only a skills gap. Many students will never consider a career in manufacturing because they see it as a dirty, dead-end industry."

These issues are hardly confined to Cleveland. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute, and accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, 32 percent of industrial companies reported "moderate to serious" skills shortages. That number nearly doubles, however, in the biosciences industry. Sixty-three percent of life science companies report skills shortages.

This skills gap - and the perceptions around manufacturing that Shah noted - could slow the growth of the biosciences sector. Stakeholders are rushing to reverse the trend, but there seem to be few answers in the short term.

Ben Venue Laboratories, a Bedford, Ohio-based contract drug manufacturer for pharmaceutical companies, has struggled to find 100 qualified candidates among 3,600 applications this year. The company has hired 47 at $13 to $15 an hour.

"The jobs and required skills are different today than the traditional automotive and industrial manufacturing skills required in the past," explains Stamy Paul, executive director of human resources at Ben Venue. "Today's jobs include bioscience technical skills and experience not often found in the existing work force."

Since Ben Venue isn't finding applicants with the needed skills, the company is forced to spend more time training new employees on its internal processes and the overall industry. Paul says the company has also started sourcing candidates from outside its local region to fill the worker void. That's despite the fact that about 40,000 local manufacturing workers have lost their jobs in the recession.

"Now that unemployment has been extended to 99 weeks, some people would rather sit home and collect $10 an hour instead of taking a $12-an-hour job," says Rich Peterson, vice president for business development at Astro Manufacturing, a Willoughby, Ohio-based parts maker for the aerospace, medical devices, and military industries. "Right now, if we take on a big contract we have to ask our employees to work overtime or outsource to another company that has excess capacity."

Overcoming the Skills Gap
Bioscience industry stakeholders agree that focusing on the future work force is the key to overcoming the skills gap. Astro Manufacturing has joined a consortium of 90 manufacturing companies in Lake County, Ohio that are struggling to find skilled workers. The companies are working with a local community college to develop an associate degree in manufacturing technology set to begin in September.

For its part, Astro is starting even earlier than college. The company recently gave a facility tour to eighth-graders. The kids got an up-close-and-personal look at surgical simulators and torpedo parts, enough to pique the interest of a handful of students.

"We have to fight the stereotype that manufacturing is dirty, repetitive, dangerous, and dying," Peterson says. "When we get kids in the plant and they see the high-tech stuff we're doing - and that it's air-conditioned, clean, and safe - that helps make manufacturing more attractive. Biosciences is not like the steel industry. But we have to send that message."

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