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Connectivity needed in biotech industry

There's a major disconnect between the Bay State's biotechnology ambitions and the readiness of potential workers for the promising and high-paying new industry. So, for the sake of the commonwealth's economic health and growth, efforts must be taken to connect those dots.

That was the conclusion of a major study conducted by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts on behalf of two of the industry's major stakeholders - the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public entity created to promote life sciences, and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a not-for-profit trade organization for the industry.

More than 85 percent of the 300 industry leaders in life sciences who were surveyed said they plan to expand in the state, but those ambitions are bumping up against another reality. Ninety percent of the biotechnology companies are having difficulty hiring research staff, while 75 percent said they have difficulty hiring engineers and staffers qualified to undertake regulatory compliance and marketing.

The shortage of skilled workers is not just a problem for biotech companies, but the situation facing the biotech industry should underscore the critical need to invest in workforce development in general.

As for biotech, the state has already made a substantial investment in industry infrastructure with Gov. Deval L. Patrick's 10-year, $1 billion life sciences bill, which includes $95 million for a research center at UMass-Amherst and $5.5 million for a business incubator at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield.

Attention now needs to be directed toward the people who will staff those industries. UMass has 1,000 biology majors on its Amherst campus, but most of the students don't get the hands-on laboratory experience they need to fit into a place like the Life Sciences Institute, according to UMass biology professor Lawrence M. Schwarz.

The connection between university and industry labs needs to be improved. The future of biotech in the Bay State also depends on improving math, science instruction in K-12 schools. Connecting the dots leading to a biotech boom in Massachusetts will require much greater coordination.

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