The Life Sciences
Talent Imperative

Discover the forces at play to attract top life sciences talent.

The life sciences industry continues to fuel breakthrough discoveries that are having a profound impact on lives around the globe. Surging venture capital (VC) investment is driving innovation and growth, making the life sciences sector a key economic driver in the national and global economy. Hiring top life sciences talent is mission-critical for industry growth—yet, it’s become more challenging than ever before.

In 2018, the life sciences sector comprised 2.1 million jobs working for 82,300 companies across the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Startups and incubator labs are joining traditional pharmaceutical companies in driving new research and development. All are hungry for talent.

Despite skyrocketing costs for real estate in the top clusters, many life sciences companies are paying top dollar for the facilities they hope will give them an edge in the talent war. In today’s environment, the cost of real estate comes second to finding talent.

It’s true that a winning real estate strategy can play a key role in recruiting and retaining the talent needed to make the next breakthrough discovery. But successful strategy requires an understanding of all the forces at play in the talent shortage.

Understanding the life sciences talent squeeze

The ability to hire professionals across multiple functional areas has become a competitive imperative. Yet multiple factors are intensifying the scarcity of talent.

The flood of VC funding into the life sciences industry can’t be ignored. VC investment has grown by over 40% in the United States alone as investors seek to advance promising new therapies, products and platforms. Flush with funding, pharmaceutical and biotechnology start-ups are ready and willing to hire—and competing with each other and established companies for in-demand professionals.

Another impediment is the rising cost of living, particularly in the top industry markets. The largest clusters, San Francisco Bay Area and Boston, struggle with infrastructure and affordability challenges, making it difficult to recruit and retain talent. Costly housing and other expenses make it difficult for recruiting new graduates to these markets — or to convince them to remain in the vicinity after graduating from one of these clusters’ renowned research universities.

Emerging clusters with premiere universities and teaching hospitals, such as Philadelphia and New York City, have seen a growth spurt in life sciences because they offer large talent pools. Meanwhile, companies in less-established clusters may face a scarcity of the local talent required to build or expand. Most report seeking qualified, experienced job candidates from other states or abroad. 

Also, the growing overlap of the tech and life sciences industries is creating unique challenges in these clusters. Data scientists, engineers and IT professionals are exceedingly hard to find, according to a recent Korn Ferry Futurestep survey, as life sciences companies increasingly are competing for talent with tech companies that offer rich benefit packages and rapid product development cycles with attractive resume-building opportunities. The appeal of growing tech companies can make it difficult for life sciences companies to recruit talent to pursue research that is increasingly technologically driven.

The new face of life sciences recruits

Finding talented scientists has always been a priority for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Today, access to a pool of skilled workers across all functional areas is equally critical to growth. In fact, hiring managers report that positions outside of R&D are often the most challenging positions in the industry to fill.

While technical expertise remains important, employers also seek people who can navigate today’s complex external and internal changes while driving innovative product development and commercialization. Demand for soft skills has risen to the top as the ability to navigate in this dynamic and competitive industry has become critical, according to the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes’ (CSBI) 2018 Workforce Trends Report.

Rising wages, rapid employment growth

Corresponding with the war for talent, industry wages are higher and rising more quickly, on average, than those of the overall economy. In 2018, the median wage for life sciences occupations was over 70 percent higher than the national average wage of all other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the most active clusters, life sciences job growth also is outpacing U.S. job growth as a whole. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, saw life sciences employment grow by over 25% since 2013 — more than double the 11% rate of job growth across the United States. This industry’s employment in Denver, Boston and Raleigh-Durham is also outpacing national employment growth, with Seattle and Raleigh-Durham almost on par.

Solutions to the talent challenge

Taking a broader view of where to find talent, certain clusters that are regionally situated often gain the best access to the graduates coming out of the top life sciences programs in the country. While the high cost of housing in the top clusters of San Francisco Bay and Boston can make it difficult to recruit new college graduates, other clusters are succeeding at retaining homegrown young talent.

In particular, life sciences clusters in close proximity to each other gain the advantage of a deep talent pool. The New York/Northern New Jersey/Long Island metropolitan statistical area (MSA) stands out as home to many of the top institutions for life sciences students—and succeeds in getting graduates to stick around. According to Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, this MSA has one of the nation’s highest retention rates for college graduates at 71.1%.  

And, experienced laboratory real estate developers have begun to tap into highly educated talent pools outside of the top three markets. Alexandria Real Estate Equities has developments under construction in Seattle and Maryland. Longfellow Real Estate Partners is partnering with Brandywine on Schuylkill Yards in Philadelphia. In Long Island City, King Street Properties has launched its Court Square project. All four of these markets offer strong life sciences talent pools that have yet to be fully tapped.

Some companies are embracing the “small, but mighty” approach to balance the high costs of real estate in the top clusters and the need for top talent. Instead of trying to put all employees in the center of the action of one cluster, big biopharmaceutical companies like Merck and Amgen are setting up smaller R&D labs across a number of major life science markets, while other employees sit in less costly facilities.

When being in an epicenter like Boston or San Francisco isn’t an option, a region with several clusters in close proximity is the next best thing. The New Jersey/New York corridor is brimming with healthcare and life sciences micro-clusters. In the northern suburb of Westchester County, for example, developer Fareri Associates has launched the 3-million-square-foot, mixed-use North 60 Westchester BioScience and Technology Center, an innovative bioscience, technology and lifestyle campus expected to expand Westchester County’s thriving biotech/healthcare sector. The facility will house life sciences companies recruiting talent coming from nearby Westchester Community College, Pace University and New York Medical College.

Long Island is another magnet for medical device technologies. It’s been galvanized by the Long Island Bioscience Hub — one of only three National Institutes of Health-designated research evaluation and commercialization hubs.

Workplace as a tool for recruitment, retention—and inspiration

Not many years ago, a top selling point for job candidates was a good benefits package. Today, it’s all about culture. And, what employees want more than anything is the freedom, flexibility and support to do a good job. Small factors, such as smart building technology that allows employees to personalize the temperature of their office, or a mobile app for reserving the workspace of the day, give employees a greater sense of control and can improve their productivity.

Facing a relentless pressure to innovate, some life sciences companies are exploring ways to design more inspiring workspaces that offer both formal and informal collaboration spaces such as comfortable lounges or cafés. And, some real estate developers are responding with facilities and campuses that offer far more than just lab and office space.

One developer specifically targeting pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies is Alexandria Real Estate Equities, whose formula follows the path of major tech companies like Google: make the workplace an experience. The developer’s Alexandria at Torrey Pines in San Diego, for example, is pegged as “creating a new standard for how work intersects life.” It offers tenants large conference rooms, a fitness center, an outdoor patio area and restaurant, and other shared amenities. The end goal is to make work a place where employees want to hang out, and can find a relaxing setting for recharging or collaborating with colleagues.

Westchester’s North 60, referenced above, aims to provide the live-work-play environment that young professionals crave. The campus is being created around a pedestrian-friendly Main Street lined with shops, a hotel and conference center, restaurants with outdoor dining, and landscaped plazas as gathering places.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia’s King of Prussia suburb, MLP Ventures has embarked on an ambitious plan to create the largest coworking ecosystem for healthcare, life sciences and technology-enabled companies in the country. MLP Venture’s $500 million, 1.6 million-square-foot Discovery Labs project  will ultimately  include 12 connected buildings ranging from 50,000 to 125,000 square feet.

Each facility at Discovery Labs is 20 times larger than the average coworking space to accommodate the critical equipment and infrastructure needed to operate life sciences companies. Discovery Labs is targeting other markets across the United States, too, and has several international locations in its plans as well.

Mapping a path forward

Looking forward, the less-established clusters are rapidly developing life sciences ecosystems that will allow for more robust talent marketplaces to flourish. Thriving industry associations, such as Denver’s Colorado BioScience Association or Seattle’s Life Science Washington, provide training and advocacy, facilitate industry-academic advancement and promote industry job opportunities.

As the industry continues to expand, finding the right locations and creating winning workplaces can help life sciences compete while conserving resources for R&D. After all, there’s more than one way to win the war for talent.