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A shortage of science talent

Novartis is coming to Cambridge, Mass. and needs to hire 400 scientists in less than a year. In a tight market for top-flight talent, such drastic needs worry smaller, local biotech companies and research institutions drawing from the same talent pool.
/ Source: Boston Business Journal

Novartis is coming to Cambridge, Mass. and needs to hire 400 scientists in less than a year. In a tight market for top-flight talent, such drastic needs worry smaller, local biotech companies and research institutions drawing from the same talent pool.

AND Novartis isn’t the only large biotech searching for specialized workers by the hundreds. With the increasing number of pharmaceutical and global biotechnology companies locating here, some executives fear that the talent pool is in danger of being spread too thin to accommodate everyone. And they worry that companies with deep pockets will be able to outbid smaller companies for scientists.

“I know where they’ll find them — my doorstep,” said Michael Lanner, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Center for Blood Research in Boston’s Longwood Medical area, where Merck & Co. Inc. is planning to open a 300,000-square-foot facility within a year to house 300 scientists.

Greater Boston, which is home to 400 biotech companies, has seen an unprecedented number of pharmaceutical companies take up residence in the past year. Such growth promises to shake up the landscape as those firms compete for the same scientists.

Besides Novartis and Merck, Astra Zeneca is adding 80,000 square feet to its research facility in Waltham, Mass., which already houses 325 scientists. It will hire 125 more scientists in the near future.

And still other companies are scouting for additional space here, including Novartis.

“This is not a good time to be recruiting in biotech,” said Stephen Israel, managing director of the biotechnology recruiting practice at the Boston office of Los Angeles-based headhunter firm Korn/Ferry International Inc. “Because it is a strong market, there are too many jobs and not enough people.”

For some specialties, there already is a dearth of talent, so the demand — as well as the salaries of those employees — will likely soar, said recruiter Jeff D’Italia of Kforce Scientific in Burlington.

Most notably, there is a shortage of organic and medicinal chemists, which are common to most drug companies because they analyze genomic data to identify drug targets. Typically, entry-level biologists and biochemists earn an average base salary of about $45,000, while chemists make about $40,000, not counting stock options and other benefits.

“They are utilizing similar technology, and they are drawing on the same crowd,” D’Italia said.

When Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. — which now employs nearly 2,000 people — decided to expand its work force by 50 percent a few years back, D’Italia said he saw salaries jump. At the time, he said, a senior scientist at most companies earned $60,000, but Millennium was offering $70,000 — a 17 percent increase. He said he expects the same to happen when Novartis begins advertising for applicants.

Novartis will be recruiting chemists, biologists and informatics staff, said Dr. Mark Fishman, who will oversee the company’s $250 million research facility that will open in Cambridge in 2003. In a statement, Fishman said he could not comment on compensation, but said he hopes the company’s resources will attract workers.

D’Italia, who has recruited for Novartis in the past, said he already is getting calls from prospects who would like to interview with the company.

Competitors claim they are not worried about Novartis and other pharmaceutical companies locating here, but they acknowledge they are looking at alternate sources of workers, ranging from training programs to overseas recruiting drives.

“There probably will be that period where supply and demand will have an impact,” said Jo Norton, director of recruitment for Cambridge-based Genzyme Corp., who is in the midst of filling 175 open positions.

Genzyme employs more than 5,000 workers. “What strikes me is how creative we have been about tapping other resources to get the work force we need,” Norton said.

Many companies are sponsoring foreigners through a federal visa program, despite the extra costs involved. Besides visa sponsorships, Astra Zeneca is hoping to capitalize on its location — outside of Boston and at the crux of major highways — to lure talent. The drug company needs to hire 125 people by next year, and plans to hire even more once another expansion project is funded by its corporate headquarters.

“We’re not just recruiting locally,” said Astra Zeneca spokesman Scott Young. He is counting on people relocating here, despite the high cost of living. “Boston is an exciting place to be.”

Pay won’t be the only factor driving employees’ decisions, observers note. “There’s a sense of glitter and attractiveness attached to working at those (pharmaceutical companies),” said Lanner, the operational head of the nonprofit CBR. “But they are driven by profits and shareholders.”

Lanner said jobs with biotech companies are not always secure, and that programs can be closed down and staff may be laid off if the research does not satisfy shareholders or the bottom line. He points to the closing by Hoffman La-Roche Co. two years ago of the Basel Institute of Immunology, which had been well-respected in the industry, because the company decided to spend the money on a Roche Center for Applied Genomics.

Lanner said his strategy for recruiting talent is to appeal to younger scientists who want to be groomed for senior science positions or those who want to go on to graduate school. He also offers them mentors who are well-known in the industry, such as Klaus Rajewsky, a renowned immunologist whom CBR recruited last year.

“Most scientists are not out there for the money,” D’Italia said. “They are more or less out there to grow their career, something they believe in and are passionate about.”

However, the influx of companies here is clearly favorable to the scientists, all agree.

“They can write their own check,” D’Italia said.

Copyright 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.