By David Nicklaus, St. Louis Post-Dispatch | April 1, 2022
St. Louis has built a vibrant biotechnology sector over the last two decades, but it can't grow without talent.
In a region with a stagnant population, finding workers is a challenge for all employers, especially those with above-average skill requirements. To understand the scope of that challenge, industry group BioSTL recently commissioned a study of workforce needs in the plant, life and medical sciences.
The study, released Monday, covers an industry that employs 19,165 people in greater St. Louis. That's a small but important fraction of the area's 1.4 million jobs: The average bioscience worker earns $116,000 a year, double the area's median wage.
The sector's 836 employers include research labs, medical labs, manufacturers and distributors, from startups to giant companies like Bayer and MilliporeSigma. The study doesn't cover health care providers, a much larger industry with some of the same skill needs.
Not surprisingly, 80% of bioscience jobs require some training beyond high school. Even in this high-tech industry, though, nearly half of all jobs can be filled by people with two years or less of post-secondary training.
“Even our leaders were surprised to see there are so many jobs in bioscience manufacturing that can be done with short-term training,” said Justin Raymundo, BioSTL's director of regional workforce strategy.
Those are the elusive middle-skill jobs that allow workers to live a middle-class lifestyle without going into debt for a four-year degree. Every region wants more of them.
Area educators have long been aware of the industry's staffing needs. St. Louis Community College's biotechnology program, based at the Danforth Plant Science Center, has a job-placement rate above 90%. Last year the college launched a course to help employees of Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biologics drug manufacturer that was expanding in Berkeley, upgrade their skills.
MilliporeSigma has also enrolled workers in the course, which may expand to other employers. “There's a huge workforce need in the biosciences but the worker shortage is not just a St. Louis problem, it's an industry problem,” said Elizabeth Boedeker, the community college's district director for plant and life sciences.
At NewLeaf Symbiotics, an agricultural research firm in Creve Coeur, seven of 35 employees are graduates of the community college's biotech program. “It's really helped our company grow,” said Natalie Breakfield, NewLeaf's vice president of research and discovery.
When she talks to high school teachers, Breakfield tries to spread the word about middle-skill careers in her industry. “When I was growing up in Jefferson County, I didn't realize these kinds of jobs existed,” she said. “I thought if you were interested in science you became a doctor or a nurse.”
Spreading the word is also among the recommendations in the workforce report. It calls for expanding STEM education initiatives into disadvantaged neighborhoods and connecting employers with schools to publicize career opportunities.
Education isn't the only need. Other services, such as a new YWCA day-care center in Olivette, can help biotech workers stay in the workforce. “It's not just about a skills gap, it's about whatever is constraining the opportunities here in the region,” Raymundo said.
The report estimates that employers need to fill 1,400 bioscience jobs annually. Many of those openings represent turnover rather than new positions, but the industry has grown. The region has added 850 bioscience jobs since 2016, even as the coronavirus pandemic caused total private sector employment to fall 3.5%.
Such resiliency makes this relatively small sector vital to St. Louis' future. If the region can't find those 1,400 workers each year, the jobs may go elsewhere.