The job market for biologists, chemists and pharmacists in Connecticut is not bright any more. Over the past few years, significant layoffs at the state’s major research and development facilities, including Pfizer, has led to fewer employment opportunities for new science graduates.
This means plenty of qualified candidates are competing for the few positions available in a handful of pharmaceutical and biotech companies now scattered around the state. As a result, many graduates and laid off workers are now considering leaving the state for jobs in the science-related industry.
Scott Clarkson is one of them. Until two years ago, he was a contractual employee at Pfizer, hoping that he would soon be offered a full-time job instead of another contract extension. His position at the company fitted his research interests — his graduate degree was in biochemistry from Wesleyan University. But as the company consolidated its operations in Connecticut, Clarkson moved to Massachusetts for better job prospects.
“At Pfizer, they kept extending my contract every year and weren’t offering anything permanent so I had to look elsewhere. When I was offered a job as a scientific associate at Novartis in Cambridge, which is one of the three major bioscience clusters in the country, I accepted it right away,” said Clarkson.
According to The American Chemical Society, the unemployment rate among chemists stands at 4.6 percent nationwide, which is at an all-time high since they first started collecting the data in 1972. “Less than 4 percent of this number comprises chemists who have previously been in the workplace, but it is unemployment among first time graduates that bumps that number to 4.6 percent,” said Dr. Barry Westcott, an ACS member and chairman of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Central Connecticut State University.
Another recent ACS survey reveals just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011 across the country.
In this challenging employment environment, graduates need to be continuously managing their careers especially since the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists, who are seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine, says Jim O’Malley, president of Myometrics, a small start-up molecular drug discovery company based in New London.
In 2007, O’Malley was also laid off by Pfizer in 2007 when the company went through a series of workforce reductions and shut an entire unit of muscle research that O’Malley was working on. “The decision had to be made then to either go back to another company and face this again or try to strike out,” he said. He chose the latter.
Since O’Malley does not see a revival in the pharmaceutical industry any soon, he believes smaller companies are the best place to be in right now. “A lot went wrong in planning where the pharma industry was headed. Major technological advances in the late eighties and early nineties led to expansion in programs and new approval of drugs. People thought this was the start of a natural growth upwards and return of double digit growth forever. “
“So companies invested in new projects and hired additional staff. But this was a case of bad calculation and projects were not paying off as they expected, so they laid off local workers and began outsourcing,” he explained, adding that major pharma companies now have research facilities overseas as a cost cutting measure.
“You’ve pulled all these people apart who made important discoveries so the best place to be is in smaller companies – on the outside of it all – providing back to those companies with drugs that they failed to develop themselves.”
But becoming an entrepreneur and starting a company is an employment avenue for experienced chemists to consider, not for fresh graduates, said O’Malley.
Paul Pascatello, President Connecticut United for Research Excellence, also known as CURE, added that while the idea of a startup is very exciting, it is also a very risky prospect. “The investment environment has changed, especially for nascent companies,” he said.
There some headwinds that have hit the industry on both the financial and the regulatory side, said Pascatello. “On the financial side, clinical trials by the Food and Drug Administration for new drug approvals can be very costly, sometimes going up to 40 million. “This makes investors pull back because there is uncertainty about the philosophy of FDA behind drug approvals.”
This retrenchment in the early stage of drug discovery has hit Connecticut financially, which is unfortunate, he said. “No one does innovation better than we do in Connecticut. One of the core places for initial research in drug discovery — which is most risky — is done at Yale and UConn.”
As a result, there is lack of permanent jobs for PhD scientists who are doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral fellowships that should last a year or two, but now it is not unusual to find scientists toiling away for four, six, even 10 years. “People are stuck and stay longer where they are than they intended to. But then continuing with their research means applying for additional funding which is another issue,” said Jennifer Frederick, co-director at the Yale Center for Scientific Education.
There is then a glut of postdocs who have nowhere to go.
Nicole Smith, senior economist with the Georgetown University Center on Education, pointed to the issue of mismatch at various levels in the pharma industry and other STEM fields. “There is a mismatch between the skill level for the job and the skill level of the unemployed, but there is also mismatch in location of the job and the location of the person who can fill it. Mismatch can also show up in excess supply in particular locations.”
Smith added that the center has found that particularly in some disciplines like biological sciences and chemistry, especially at the PhD level, there was an excess supply of workers because the demand for their skills in academia was not rising as fast as the institutions ability to produce those students. In such a situation, it was traditionally thought that one could go to industry, but that is also shrinking.
“The question is: are those chemists willing and able to pick up and move to the location of the country where there are jobs that require their skills?” said Smith.
Clarkson concurred and added that this is because there is a major disconnect between the market and educational institutions. “There are great, experienced people out there who have no access to jobs.”
Major institutions like the University of Connecticut refute the claim. “We are about engagement and finding out what the industry needs are and are always collaborating with them,” said Mary Holz-Clause, vice president for economic development at University of Connecticut.
A survey of students at the university revealed that 100 percent of pharmacy graduates get jobs when they leave, which shows that the university is connected with the industry, added Dr. Robert McCarthy, dean of school of pharmacy at the university. “We are very concerned about job cuts in the pharma industry, but so far we have been able to place all our graduates successfully.”
Dr. McCarthy added that there is in fact an increasing demand of pharmaceutical scientists in the state, especially with the governor’s investiment in Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine, a research facility at the Farmington campus of University of Connecticut.
“This will be a hotbed for bioscience and will attract talented students from all over the world,” said Holz-Clause.
Although not enough to replace the several thousand pharmaceutical research positions that have been lost across the state, these initiatives, and the collaborative possibilities that they offer, would create opportunities for early-career researchers in areas ranging from genomics and systems biology to bioinformatics and energy sciences.
“Governor Malloy’s step is encouraging, but little too early to tell how successful it will be in creating the jobs that are needed. It takes years for these situations to brew and develop so it’s hard to predict,” said Frederick.
Among other initiatives at University of Connecticut is the construction of a ‘Technology Park’ in 2015 at the Storrs campus where industries will set up training centers for students to teach them the skills they would need after graduation. This is being done to attract students who would otherwise opt out of STEM-related majors within the first two years of undergraduate enrollment because of uninteresting teaching methods. “Students can actually go out there in the park and say I know physics now!” said Holz-Clause.
Pascatello said he is also optimistic about the future of the bio-pharma industry and research spin-off, especially in the next five years. “The foundation of bio-pharma companies are research universities and we’re doing that very well here at Yale and UConn,” he said.
O’Malley, however, has his inhibitions. In his opinion, the state has to make a choice between attracting companies who bring in jobs immediately and pay millions of dollars for new jobs, which is unsustainable, or support startup companies who, in five to ten years, will bring back at least a significant percentage of the jobs so the industry itself is not lost.
“This is where the state’s role is relevant.”