By Elizabeth Zulick, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University; Lauren-Ash Sadler, Mariluci Bladon, Biotechnology Program, Middlesex Community College; and Manuel Sánchez-Félix, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research
A session was held during the 2020 American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientist’s PharmSci 360 that highlighted the benefits of a diverse and inclusive (D&I) workforce in the pharmaceutical industry and the need for improved recruiting of D&I candidates (Coker, 2020). In this article, we describe a successful ecosystem involving academia, biotech/pharma, and students that promotes degree attainment, job placement (internships, co-op, and fulltime employment), and career advancement.
The Associate to Masters (A2M) degree path involves close collaboration between Middlesex Community College (MCC), Northeastern University, and over 30 advisory board members from the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. The objective of this pathway is to increase degree attainment rates of low-income students who are disproportionately underrepresented minorities by eliminating barriers to education. As part of this National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program, students receive full scholarships as they earn their associate, bachelor’s, and/or master’s degree in biotechnology, and are provided additional support, including mentoring, tutoring, seminars, lab tours, and more. Importantly, the education pathway has been built in partnership with industry leaders to meet the demands of local employers, focusing on both technical and soft skill development. The A2M Scholars are all low-income, full-time, domestic students per NSF requirements, and over 53% identify as underrepresented minorities in STEM. Nationally, the retention rate for a B.S. degree for STEM students is 53.7 percent. In contrast to the national retention rates, the A2M degree pathway has retention rates that exceed 90 percent at all degree levels offered. By sharing this program and its outcomes, we hope to promote future development of similar pathways within all industries and encourage continued support of industry partners.
Northeastern University and MCC have developed an accelerated pathway into the biotechnology workforce in Boston, the leading biotechnology job market in the country. To do this, the schools created a pathway for students to transfer all their associate’s degree credits into bachelor’s degree pathway (Figure 1). This small step is critical in the student experience, allowing students to come into their B.S. program with half of the credits required to graduate, streamlining the transfer process, all while also freeing students from retaking previous coursework or spending additional scholarship money on remedial coursework.
Another key component of the program is the appointment of an NSF-funded Biotech Navigator (the Navigator) who works across institutions to help students in the transfer process and provide wrap-around student support services. The Navigator serves as a safety net for students, ensuring no one falls through the cracks during the transfer process or throughout the program. Students are provided a variety of other just-in-time supports throughout the program, ensuring student success. This includes mentorship, tutoring, loaner laptops, seminars, textbook support, social events, family events, and more. Finally, the pathway has been closely built and supported by biotechnology industry partners to ensure students are graduating with the skills to be successful from day one in the workforce. Biotechnology is a constantly changing field which requires both technical expertise and soft skills, making the engagement of industry partners critical to program success. The program is also graciously funded by multiple groups as summarized in Table 1.
Figure 1: Outline of Associate’s to Master's (A2M) degree program
Table 1: Funding Support to Date
Problem 1: Growing demand in biotech workforce for entry-level graduates with both technical and soft skills
The Boston/Cambridge metro area continues to be ranked as the top biopharma cluster in the U.S. based on laboratory inventory size, number, and concentration of industry scientists, NIH ($2.4B in 2018) and venture capital funding (over $5B in 2018), and long-term growth of the life science workforce (CBRE 2019). Labor market research from partner MassBioEd indicates that Massachusetts biotech companies will add 12,000 additional jobs by 2024 (MassBioEd, 2019). The report finds that "31 percent of survey respondents indicated that a lack of applicants with the necessary scientific or technical skills was a significant or critical obstacle to hiring" and "the number of job postings across all education levels increased by 100–140 percent since 2010, while numbers of suitably trained college graduates and doctorates grew at substantially lower rates" (MassBioEd, 2019).
Students in the A2M program are not only qualified technically to fill many of these unfilled and emerging positions, but are also being trained on soft skills like writing, communication, and teamwork, which was another area the report showed employers thought applicants lacked proficiency. Both Northeastern and MCC rely on industry partners to ensure the curriculum being taught reflects the highest needed skills to ensure students are hirable and can immediately make a positive impact on the companies they work for. Additionally, Northeastern and MCC rely on industry partners as part of their advisory boards, hosting seminars, serving as mentors, and more (see Table 2).
Table 2: Industry contributions, an abbreviated list.
Problem 2: Need for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical fields
There is a growing recognition of the need for more diversity, equity, and inclusion within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical fields. Both women and people of color, especially Black and Latinx people, are severely underrepresented in life science companies. Women represent 45% of the total workforce and only 18% of board members of biotechnology companies (BIO Report). Black and Latinx people represent only 9% of the total biotechnology workforce and 4% of biotechnology board members (BIO Report), while making up 32% of the U.S. population. The report also demonstrated that most employers stated a commitment to building an inclusive environment; however only 11% of employers have incorporated diversity targets for women into their hiring processes, and only 10% for people of color (BIO Report). Employers recognize the disparity that exists in their organizations, but many do not seem to have clear action steps to mitigate the problem and actively develop solutions. As of September 2020, 164 CEO’s in Massachusetts representing the breadth of the life sciences signed an open letter pledging their support for a “More Equitable and Inclusive Life Sciences Industry.” The pledge serves as a call to action for CEO’s to create change (MassBio, 2020). Addressing the gap in participation and retention of women and underrepresented minorities is not only important for equity reasons, but diversity and inclusion has been recognized to increase the success of companies and society. A BCG Henderson report showed that "Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity—45% of total revenue versus just 26%” (BCG, 2018). In order for biotech companies to innovate more effectively diversity, equity, and inclusion need to remain a top priority and have intentional and robust interventions.
Problem 3: Retention rates for Underrepresented Minorities (URM) and/or female students and employees
Nationwide, retention rates for URM and/or female students and employees is disproportionately low when compared to their white, male counterparts. In STEM majors specifically, compared to their white peers, both Black and Latinx students are more likely to change majors out of STEM. Reigle-Crumb, King, and Irizarry (2019) conclude in their study that "specifically, the probability of a Black student switching majors rather than persisting in the major field is about 19 percentage points higher than the probability of a White student; the corresponding probability for a Latinx student is about 13 percentage points higher than that of a White student". The BIO Report on Diversity demonstrated that most employers stated a commitment to building an inclusive environment, but only 16 percent of companies have goals to promote or develop women and 12 percent have goals to promote or develop people of color (BIO report). Thus, the industry as a whole has a lot of room grow in not only recruiting underrepresented people into industry but building an environment where employees wants to stay. Retention is a key component for success, "The business benefits of diversity have been well documented: more perspectives, greater innovation, richer thinking—the list goes on. But if employees aren't bringing their whole selves to work, some or all of the power of diversity is squandered, and both employee and employer are worse off for it" (Bain, 2021).
Moving Towards a Solution
Recruitment: From High School to Graduate Courses
The recruitment for the Biotechnology Program at MCC is on a rolling basis throughout the year, to target the largest number and most diverse learners. Th efforts include events such as open houses, visiting local high schools, and educating students and their families about the growing opportunities available in biotech. The Biotech Program is over 31 years old and many graduates from earlier years are now in high level positions (such as vice presidents, directors, managers, and supervisors) and come to talk to the students, helping promote the value of a biotech education. In addition to direct outreach to students and families, recruiting also relies heavily on word-of-mouth. The program highlights exciting new course material and lab-based training covering innovations occurring in the industry.
A new aspect of the AS in Biotech Program is the "Learn and Earn" program, which has provided an additional source of excitement for learners. As part of all recruitment efforts, the industry partners are always highlighted, including industry partners interested in hiring graduates and who influence the curriculum. While at MCC, learners are introduced to the bachelor’s and master’s degree program at Northeastern via MCC classroom visits from Northeastern faculty, tours, and open houses on Northeastern’s campus, and clearly outlined transfer agreements that are openly shared with learners.
Northeastern and MCC Demographic Information and Outcomes
Currently, the three biotech programs serve over 600 learners, with 68 currently participating in the NSF-funded A2M program. Table 3a provides a snapshot of the overall programs from the Fall of 2020 while Table 3a provides a snapshot of the Fall 2020 A2M cohort (note: this was during peak COVID cases in the United States). In general, all of the programs are serving more women learners than men, with 64 percent identifying as female at the associate level, 59 percent identifying as female at the BS level, and 63% identifying as female at the master’s level. For the A2M program, the program has 75 percent of learners identifying as female at the associate level, 71 percent of learners identifying as female at the bachelor’s level, and 50 percent of learners identifying as female at the master’s level. The percentage of female students are above the national averages at all three levels. When looking at race and ethnicity of the learners, all of the programs are serving more students of color than the national average, with 21 percent identifying as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the associate level, 38 percent identifying as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the bachelor’s level, and 11 percent identifying as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the master’s level. For the A2M program, 33 percent of learners identify as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the associate level, 39 percent of learners identify as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the bachelor’s level, and 50 percent of learners identify as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx at the master’s level. The percentage of Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx students are above the national averages at all three levels of the A2M program. Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, is the retention rate of the learners in the A2M program, which is over 90 percent at all three levels, and between 6 to 40 percentage points higher than the programs. Importantly, this is well above the national STEM retention rate of 67 percent.
Tables 3a and 3b: An overview of the metrics for both the MCC and Northeastern biotech programs. a. Summary of overall program demographics from Fall 2020. b. Summary of A2M Program demographics from Fall 2020.
Ecosystem supporting student needs
Figure 2 illustrates the "push and pull" ecosystem that is focused on helping underrepresented learners in biotechnology succeed. The process starts with the understanding that many learners do not have the social and monetary support to progress through a traditional academic program, especially programs that do not have clear career outcomes. Most learners are pursuing education because they want a job, or a better job, and therefore value academic credentials that give them the opportunity to gain access to both industry experience and mentorship. Here, the educational pathway offers a number student-friendly features, namely, clearly defined transferable courses (incremental degrees that can be achieved in two years or less), course offerings that allow full-time paid jobs, co-ops or internships to be pursued concurrently, course content that can be applied to a biotech career, and support for applying and transferring into the next part of the program.
The industry advisory board helps in many ways, including curriculum development, defining current and future biotech skills requirements, teaching or guest lecturing, mentorship, seminars, equipment donations, and, most notably, full-time paid jobs, co-ops, or internships. Many of the work experiences offered to learners in the A2M program are from program alumni, or partners who have a similar background. Importantly, many of the companies strive to provide additional training and mentorship to learners along the A2M pathway, knowing that the learners face additional obstacles as majority first generation college students.
Figure 2: A2M Partnership Ecosystem
The program outlined herein only works because of the close collaboration between academia, industry, students, and funders. The program represents a positive, but small step towards a diverse and equitable workforce required for Biotech and Pharma industry's continued success. For programs like A2M to continue to be successful, grow and scale, they need increased support and integration from industry partners. Industry partners can contribute via scholarships, program funding, mentorship, jobs, paid co-ops/internships, webinars, equipment donations, curriculum updates, teaching, and more.
Figure 3: Highlights future initiatives required to continue this success.
In Collaboration with Tayaba Naz (Eurofins, Biologics Process Development Manager), Jared Auclair (Northeastern University, Associate Dean, College of Science), Amnon Eylath (Constellation, Vice President of Quality), Karla Talanian (MassBioEd, Director of Talent and Workforce), Eduart Golloshi (Takeda, Director of Manufacturing), David Lai (Takeda, Supply Chain Projects and Compliance Manager), Patricia Richard (Middlesex Community College, Professor), and Ryan Mudawar (Mass Life Sciences Center, Vice President of Education & Workforce Programs)
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