Indiana's bioscience sector faces worker shortage | Crain's Indianapolis

Indiana's bioscience sector faces worker shortage

Indiana may have become a victim of its own success in health and life sciences — a situation highlighted by a new study that raises alarm about how to fill the 12,000 job openings expected annually through 2022.

The study by TEConomy Partners, for the life sciences initiative BioCrossroads, attributed worker shortages to factors including retirements and rising use of information technology, for which existing workers aren’t prepared.

“Surveys are very bullish about the economy, but in most cases executives who were surveyed were concerned about how they’re going to fill those roles,” said David Johnson, president and CEO of BioCrossroads.

Johnson said the study is the most extensive look to date into the workforce needs of a sector that’s enjoyed job growth in Indiana of more than 22 percent since 2001.

That’s a pool of 265,000 jobs ranging from nurses to scientists.

The average annual salary for healthcare workers is $70,000 — with jobs in life sciences paying an average of $97,000, according to BioCrossroads.

Despite higher-than-average earnings, Indiana has been found to struggle in attracting and retaining top life sciences talent. Just 33 percent of in-state biological science graduates work in the state, according to the study.

One of the study’s four recommendations is to do more to lasso that talent. Unfortunately, the health and life sciences fields lack the panache of others like Indianapolis’ information technology sector, which has drawn scores of recent college graduates in the last decade.

“In the end you have to be prepared to go out and tell your story,” Johnson said. “And for that the city really needs to have much more of a visible brand destination for people” in health and life sciences.

To that end, the sector has under development what could be a big recruiting magnet: 16 Tech, which aims to be a veritable city for life sciences, IT and advanced manufacturing. The site under development between 10th and 16th streets is already anchored by the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute. Flexible office space and even housing to lure entrepreneurs is also planned in an attempt to draw more talent.

“It’s going to be a huge assembly point of all kinds of tech talent,” Johnson said.

That could include software engineering and data analytics from other industries, which could have collaborative research and recruiting benefits for health and life sciences.

Johnson said the 16 Tech initiative needs to feed off other technologies.

“We’re hopeful that the Rolls Royce’s and Cummins’ and others in the tech community will find a place in the park,” he said.

But Indianapolis may be a little late to the game with such a development. It trails not just tech titans Austin and Boston but also cities such as Denver, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

“I wish I could tell you it was a novel idea,” Johnson said. 

The report also recommends better training for existing workers; some will need skills in informatics and clinical trials management, for example.

“An increase in the number of in-state students pursuing engineering and IT degrees would help reduce the imbalance,” the report stated.

The last recommendation was for stronger K-12 requirements in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Much of that has been the province of public-private efforts led by the health and life sciences sector.

“But to scale it and really make it work to deal with the challenge, the Indiana General Assembly and the governor and the superintendent of public instruction are going to have to come together in agreement” on curriculum requirements, Johnson said.

States such as Iowa and Alabama have made STEM an important public priority, according to the report.

Because public policy changes often take years, short-term options include replications of successful initiatives, such as TechPoint’s “Xtern” program. In the last two years, Xtern has placed 158 students from 22 universities in 37 Indiana technology companies, according to TechPoint.

“That kind of effort in the life sciences would be tremendously helpful,” Johnson said, adding there’s nothing to keep BioCrossroads and its industry partners from launching such an effort.

Historically, however, BioCrossroads has been more focused on helping budding life sciences companies find investment capital, rather than on worker adequacy issues.

Read more at Indiana’s Health and Life Sciences Talent and Workforce: Developing Strategies to Compete in a Global Economy.

Photo courtesy of Eli Lilly and Co.

May 12, 2016 - 9:20pm