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In mid-2016 Washington State’s Department of Commerce, with the support of Governor Jay Inslee, commissioned a study to understand the opportunity to grow and support the life science and global health industry in the state. As part of this work, the state partnered with TEConomy, a national firm recognized in advancing state life science strategies and assessing their economic impacts.

I was honored to be asked to participate as a member of the Washington Life Science and Global Health Workforce Panel that partnered with TEConomy throughout the year-long study. In October 2017 the study findings were published in the Assessing Washington’s Life Science and Global Health Workforce Dynamics. Download and read the full report here.

Timely discussion and research

The research indicates that Washington State doesn’t currently have the workforce we need to sustain a growing life science industry. Based on the exposure Resourceful HR has through our human resources work and other industry partnerships, we understand this is a dilemma facing all industries in the region. One need only look at recent news of Amazon’s search for a location for a second headquarters to see that it’s not just the life science and global health industry leaders who are worried about the workforce shortage.

Workforce and sustainable economic concerns aren’t new—the same fears arose in 2001, when Boeing announced that they were moving to Chicago. In fact, these fears about regional economic growth go back decades—Boeing’s layoffs in the 1960s made for a famous Seattle billboard that read, “Will the last person of Seattle please turn off the lights?”

Study asks key questions and identifies Washington’s workforce challenges

Keeping the lights not only on, but burning brightly, was the goal for the life science workforce study. The project addressed several key questions, including:

  • What workforce skills will be needed?
  • What capacity does Washington have now to engage broader population groups and offer the needed range of educational and training efforts?
  • Where are the major gaps in the workforce system relative to key demands for the life science and global health workforce?

According to the study, the competitiveness of Washington’s life science industry and global health sector are at risk if we don’t implement strategic solutions to address workforce-related issues.

While the questions addressed in the study were focused on examining the life science industry, I believe the same inquiries about workforce sustainability can be applied to other industries. Where are the major gaps in the workforce system relative to key demands for every industry? And, what capacity do we have to engage broader populations in terms of educational and training efforts?

The report suggests that companies are making decisions about expansion and growth based on whether Washington State has the workforce required for that organization to succeed.

“Companies are making location decisions regarding expanding regional and national hubs, sites for headquarters and research operations, and are working through their own calculations regarding limiting factors for growth, with talent continually among the factors under consideration,” the report acknowledges.

The research identified four factors that make it difficult for the life science and global health industry to compete for talent and sustain a viable workforce:

  1. Competition for skills in a talent population that is in high demand by other industries (e.g., engineering and IT roles)
  2. Absence of talent generation in specific skills critical for life science
  3. Inconsistent ability to engage populations that are typically under-represented in the life science and STEM-related fields
  4. Ineffective or non-existent connections with the state’s postsecondary institutions and students

Again, the factors identified in the study were specific to the life science industry; however, this research presents us with an important question: could we be facing a systemic workforce problem that extends beyond a specific industry? It’s important to review the research with a broader view and consider how what we learned may apply to other industries as well.

Insights and action for the life science industry (and others)

In addition to the questions and challenges raised, the Assessing Washington’s Life Science and Global Health Workforce Dynamics report shares great insights and suggests actions that I believe we can all use to address workforce concerns in Washington State—regardless of the industry.

The gist of the findings is that companies need to spend time developing talent. They can do so by building relationships with educational institutions, and should engage with potential talent across a variety of study areas. Although the skill shortages facing Washington’s life science industry are significant, the report from TEConomy indicates that by implementing specific initiatives, these issues can be addressed.

The research suggests two strategic priorities for the life science industry to take to intervene and act on this talent pipeline crisis:

  1. Enhance talent connections within the life science and global health industry to state education programs.
  2. Address critical occupational and skill set gaps

[Image source: Assessing Washington’s Life Science and Global Health
Workforce Dynamics: Enhancing Connections and Addressing the
Skills Gaps to Ensure Future Growth;
(p. V) (October 2017) TEConomy Partners, LLC.]

The good news? While significant issues were identified, as the report states, the recommended actions don’t necessarily take too much new effort.

“Many of the recommended strategies and actions require relatively few resources and several could simply leverage existing state programs or initiatives to re-position them with a life science and global health focus. Recognizing the importance of the industry to Washington’s economic and innovation ecosystem, it is in the state’s best interests that industry stakeholders come together in an intentional effort to address these challenges.”

One of the main themes of the research results was an awareness that leaders have a responsibility to start exposing students to the life science industry as a viable career option. This needs to begin as early as possible in their K-12 education, and requires continued focus to influence awareness in post-secondary school. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize and emphasize that not every life science employee is a scientist, researcher, or mathematician. Part of the outreach effort must emphasize that there are a variety of jobs in the industry which students of marketing, finance, and human resources should consider.

What’s the next step?

Being asked to serve as a panel member in this important research endeavor was timely not only in terms of Resourceful HR’s connection with the life science community, but also in terms of our goals as an organization to contribute to positive, systemic and innovative ways we can grow and support Washington state’s economy and workforce.

As a company specialized in providing outsourced HR and recruiting solutions, we are dedicated to ensuring organizations in every industry have a strong workforce foundation to enable business success.

If you’d like to talk more about what this study revealed, or how you can use the findings to address your talent requirements, please reach out. Our team is here to support you in making systemic decisions that support workforce and economic sustainability in your region.