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Report: Biotech industry periled

SPRINGFIELD - Massachusetts needs to do a better job of getting more people ready for jobs in biotechnology, concludes a major study released in Boston on Tuesday.

Ninety percent of the state's biotechnology companies told the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and Massachusetts Biotechnology Council that they have difficulty hiring research staff, while 75 percent said they have difficulty hiring engineers and staffers qualified to undertake regulatory compliance and marketing.

Meanwhile, more than 85 percent of the 300 industry leaders in life science who were surveyed plan to expand in the state, according to the report.

The study was conducted by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts on behalf of the two agencies. It was the result of a year-long research effort which saw collaboration among the life sciences industry, academia, and government.

The report underscored that the state must address workforce development in order to grow and continue as a leader in the life sciences industry over the next decade.

It cautioned that the state's "talent advantage in the industry could erode unless state government, employers, and educators work together to maintain it."

The report's release comes on the heels of the June signing by Gov. Deval L. Patrick of a 10-year, $1 billion, life sciences bill. The bill included $95 million for a research center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and $5.5 million for a business incubator at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield.

"We are pretty much always hiring," said Alexander N. Mello, director of project management at Microtest Laboratories in Agawam, one of the almost 300 biotechnology companies doing business in the state. "There are always opportunities here if there are people with the right background."

But the firm has difficulty finding experienced people because there are few other companies in the area in its industry. Also, college programs in the area teach plenty of science, but little of what a worker at a place like Microtest needs to know, he said.

Eastern Massachusetts has programs geared more specifically to industry, Mello said.

"Where they take people from the biotech industry, and they bring them in to teach," he said. "I think that's where we are ultimately lacking."

Microtest does manufacturing and analysis work for biotech companies, including the quality-control testing of medications and medical devices.

The study released on Tuesday recommends improving elementary and secondary education to get more students interested in the sciences. It also calls for improved technical training for workers with less than a bachelor's degree, as well as emphasizing education at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels that combine biology, physics, and chemistry, and also emphasize laboratory skills and research experience, according to the 30-page report.

Lawrence M. Schwartz is a professor of biology at UMass-Amherst and scientific director at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield. He pointed out that UMass has 1,000 biology majors on its Amherst campus alone.

"Some of them are going to graduate school or medical school," he said. "But most of them are going to find jobs."

The problem is that most do not get the kind of practical, hands-on laboratory experience they need in order to fit into a place like the Life Sciences Institute.

"They don't know all the protocols, how to conduct yourself in a lab, how to keep a proper laboratory notebook," he said. "I think it's a pretty common problem."

Students are enthusiastic, Schwartz said, but UMass has fewer than 30 biology professors for th 1,000 students.

"I get e-mails every day from people who want to get in my lab," he said. "But I can only take a very few."

Robert W. Dickerman, dean of the school of mathematics, science, and engineering at Springfield Technical Community College, where 20 to 25 students are enrolled in biotechnology programs, said students need to know that not every job in a laboratory requires a doctoral degree.

Scientists need technicians to run their experiments, he said. Those technician jobs, Dickerman added, start at around $30,000 a year and go up to almost $100,000 a year, depending on the worker's experience.

The Donahue Institute report estimates there are currently 100,000 workers in the life sciences in Massachusetts who are "well compensated," earning an average of 64 percent more than the state's average salary in 2007. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average weekly salary for Massachusetts workers for the second quarter of last year was $1,008.

The life sciences center is a quasi-public entity created by the Legislature's Economic Stimulus Bill in 2006 to promote the life sciences within the state. The biotechnology council is a not-for-profit trade organization for the industry.

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