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Ideas Made to Matter


As the life sciences industry grows, how can it be more inclusive?


The pandemic has been devastating for U.S. employment, but the life sciences industry has only grown. While the private sector saw a 5.1% overall decline in its employment base in 2020, this industry grew its base by 1.4%. It also added 2.53 million unique job postings from 2017 to 2020, according to the 2021 Life Sciences Workforce Trends Report.

On Oct. 21, MIT Sloan hosted the latest in a series of discussions on the inclusion innovation economy to consider how leaders can capitalize on this growth to foster inclusivity.

a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president and current MIT Sloan lecturer who focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy, moderated the conversation. Aisha Francis, CEO of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology; Boston City Councilor-at-Large Julia Mejia; and Kenn Turner, CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, joined her.

As the industry grows and even flourishes due to the pandemic, new hiring practices have to grow with it, they said. Ultimately, long-entrenched hiring systems need to meet people where they are; the onus needn’t be on prospective employees who are hindered by a lack of access to higher education, transportation, or job postings.

For instance, Turner is working on a bridge-building program where he introduces potential employees to companies based on the companies' needs, fostering accountability in hiring.

“We’re going to convene a working group to bridge the gap between demand and supply with industry partners. Let’s go literally company by company: Define exactly what your needs are. I want them to commit to [a certain number of jobs] on an annual basis so we can forecast,” Turner said.

“There shouldn’t be a mismatch between enrichment opportunities and the available youth whom we know need exposure,” Francis said.

 Here are four ideas for driving inclusivity in this rapidly accelerating field.

Meet untapped talent where they live and work

The life sciences industry can be insular and hive-like: Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts; California’s Silicon Valley. Forward-thinking employers will mine talent beyond their neighborhoods. One idea is to consider building plants and factories in underrepresented areas with cheaper real estate and overlooked workers, Turner said.

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In fact, many entry-level jobs originate in biomanufacturing. These jobs can start at $50,000 per year, “with upward mobility and benefits and educational training. You can go from a job to a career in the life sciences — but it requires training,” he said.

Training opportunities should meet people where they live, because commuting isn’t feasible for people who might juggle multiple jobs or lack access to transportation. For instance, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology will relocate within Boston from the South End to Nubian Square in Roxbury, where about half of residents are Black, compared to 23% citywide.

“Our goal is to center skills training in life sciences in areas where many people are working low-wage jobs with little potential for growth,” Francis said. “Skills training can be … hard to find. A few miles can take 30 minutes on mass transit. It’s actually inconvenient. Offer workforce training in the life sciences in the community where people are underemployed and have untapped talent.”

Loosen hiring requirements

In highly educated areas, most life sciences jobs require a bachelor’s degree at minimum — but that’s not always necessary.

As such, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology is building an associate’s degree in biotechnology, focusing on manufacturing.

“Our responsibility is to make sure people are being trained for industry roles that actually exist, and what has happened in the biotech space is that they all say ‘bachelor’s degree required,’” Francis said. “There’s degree inflation and degree discrimination at play. Release the minimum requirements of a bachelor’s degree for roles that don’t need it.”

Expose kids to life sciences careers at a young age

Many kids simply don’t know that life science careers exist.  

“Unless you grew up in an environment where this was part of the dinner table [conversation] or have people in your family [who do this work], it’s going to feel like something that’s out of reach,” said Mejia, who stressed the importance of “exposure and intentionality” in introducing kids to science at a young age.

“Let’s start talking about it in middle school as a viable career,” she said.

Public school systems need to partner with companies, organizations, and universities such as MIT to build stronger pipelines.

Mejia recalled when Liz Walker, the first Black woman to co-anchor a Boston newscast, spoke at her high school.

“Going to college wasn’t on my radar. Liz Walker told her story at my high school and interrupted my cycle of poverty,” Mejia said. “If you can see it, you can be it.”

In the same vein, leaders such as MIT “could open up their doors a bit more, not just in terms of hosting events and activities, but being a partner with [public schools] and organizations. Not one of those, ‘I’ll parachute in and get data and use it to design something else,’ but a meaningful partner that is committed to a long-term relationship. Oftentimes, we do a lot of short-term things, but those don’t lead to long-term sustainability. Be more mindful of long-term relationships and commitments,” Mejia said.

Build cultural competence within your organization

“Institutions have to be ready to start with the basics and receive and build folks up in a way that’s asset-based and not deficit-focused,” Francis said.

This means focusing on a prospective employee’s current skills and ongoing potential as opposed to hiring from a charity perspective or to meet a quota. If life sciences employers are committed to hiring workers who are first-generation college graduates, or first generation living in the United States, or those who have been involved in the court system or in recovery, those employers must have cultural competence. That’s the ability to understand and interact with people from different backgrounds.

If an employee isn’t a fit, companies must look inward and consider why that might be. If retention rates for employees from those backgrounds are low, employers must examine how workplace culture might contribute.

“If we’re serious about building pipelines, we need to meet people where they’re at and lead with their assets,” Mejia said. “Shift the mindset. Lead with the skills we already have and then create opportunities that will help strengthen the workforce through [people’s] natural-given talents.”

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