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STEM Shortages Everywhere You Look

Readers in the United Kingdom will be interested to hear that the drug industry there is apparently suffering from the same terrible, crippling shortage of people to hire that afflicts us here in the US. That’s what I get from this article, anyway. The schools have failed everyone, it seems, and despite offering thousands of open positions at high wages, the UK pharma industry just isn’t able to find enough qualified applicants. They might well have to go offshore to deal with the problem, I read.

What’s that? You say that there aren’t thousands of high-paying open positions? That thousands of people have actually been laid off all over the UK in recent years from this same industry that faces a hiring squeeze? Well, then, surely we have such a problem here in the US – after all, no less an expert than John Lechleiter, CEO of Eli Lilly, has been going around talking about this for several years, in speech after speech.

What’s that? You that, adjusted for inflation, that the salaries of chemists in general have hardly moved for thirty years? And that from 2008 to 2012, inflation-adjusted wages for the entire “life scientist” job category actually fell? And that this might indicate that demand for them has not, in fact been increasing? Madness. The shortage of qualified workers must have affected your brain. By the way, they must also be facing crippling STEM shortages in Ireland, Spain, and Italy, because Roche has announced that they’re closing facilities there (and one in the US, a plant in South Carolina), eliminating 1200 jobs overall in a rework of their manufacturing processes. In this tight, tight labor market, I’m sure all the people affected will be snapped right up, though. Right?

34 comments on “STEM Shortages Everywhere You Look”

  1. Chemjobber says:

    The ABPI report is pretty interesting, in that the surveyed folks (all ninety-something of them) basically agree that there is no shortage of synthetic chemists in the UK, but 50% of them are concerned about the quality and quantity of process chemists. The whole report is sorta kinda bizarre, just like all these trade association reports that believe that they are best served by hordes of willing scientists who are eager to work for peanuts.

  2. anchor says:


  3. biotechtoreador says:

    Thank you for not discussing the outside world.

  4. dearieme says:

    The “shortage of STEM” racket is an old fraud: it was being broadcast when I was a lad. Just think, I gave up the chance to pursue a remunerative degree in English Literature to dedicate myself to maths, physics, chemistry, engineering, industrial management, computer programming, mathematical modelling, ….. Snot fair.

  5. William Jackson says:

    I have to say that when I (and Nick K, one of the regular commentators here) did chemistry at Imperial College, they struggled to get 80 people on the course and this was the days of Barton and Wilkinson.

    Now, they take almost double that with entry requirements that we would have laughed at and probably failed to achieve (OK, maybe not, but the offers that they handed out were much lower then to attract people in). I fail to see where the jobs for these people are going to come from; maybe, like many in my time, they will move out into accounting (probably more like banking nowadays).

    1. A Foreign Student says:

      A possible counterpoint: have you actually been on campus recently? There are actually quite few UK students, so I guess many of them are not planning to work in the UK. (I don’t know whether this has changed since the olden days though.)

      Evil tongues have it the college likes to keep it this way, since they collect significantly higher term fees from foreign students.

  6. Anon says:

    Ridiculous, isn’t it? I feel that most of this is due to a shortage of uncreative, risk-averse HR folks, recruiters and hiring managers that can’t look beyond their own noses and the specific experiences that candidates present on their CVs…

    “Don’t have prior experience launching our own new product in the markets we haven’t yet launched it? Oh well, seems you are not properly qualified.”

    “Don’t have prior experience developing the specific drug that nobody has developed before? That’s a shame.”

    No risk, no return.

  7. Nick K says:

    Taking inflation into account, salaries for most chemists in Britain have actually regressed in the last twenty years, and they were never great to start with.

  8. Mike says:

    As a PhD chemist who was out of work for over a year the last time I was laid off, and as someone who has seen countless former colleagues similarly struggle to find work, I completely understand the frustration evident in your post.

  9. Bagnar says:

    UK, France, Europe in general are in the same situation.

    GSK is selling the “Ullis” site. Sanofi is relocating most of its research on the Swiss border, but on the Swiss side. Up South, Merck bought a nice start-up, Idenix, took everything back to the US and laid off french researchers. There are plenty of these examples around here.

    Pharma sector, worldwide, is moving fast. Massive lay-off happen every month… I still figure how can these companies bring new drugs on the market without people to simply synthesize them…
    What a stressfull work environment… I want to join. Crazy me.

    BTW, The China National Chemical made recently today a $42 billions offer to buyout Syngenta. Nothing more than $42 billions. Talks are still open. Swiss may want more… AHAH !

  10. Nick K says:

    Hi Bill! My past has caught up with me!
    I’m willing to wager that those of our contemporaries at IC who did accountancy are now financially secure and living in large houses in Sussex and Surrey.

    Mike: You are one of the lucky ones. I know several people, very good chemists, who have had to abandon chemistry in middle age after being laid off because the jobs simply aren’t there.

    1. JT says:

      Hi Nick
      As someone who made that switch exactly a year ago after being a casualty of yet another ‘synergy reorganisation’. I can confirm that Surrey is very nice…. Still waiting for the massive salary though!!!

  11. exGlaxoid says:

    I will agree that the job market for chemists, and most scientists has been dismal since about 2008, and I know dozens of unemployed or underemployed chemists and biologists.

    It would be great if everyone in the US and the whole world was well educated in STEM, but creating a huge number of mediocre BS, MS, and PhD graduates in these fields while not help science or existing scientists. If scientists created a professional licensing program, and self-enforced real standards for entering programs (like doctors, lawyers, dentists, MBAs, etc do), and then required graduates to pass some tests, it would ultimately help the field, but not likely to happen.

    But I wish the media and politicians would question the alleged shortage of qualified applicants story that companies have used to justify bringing more immigrants to the US, many of who work for very low pay and under indentured-servant-like conditions.

  12. Radiochemist says:

    Yep only big pharma jobs (in med chem) I’ve seen advertised in the UK since graduating (2011) in the UK have been for AZ at those were due to people being laid off in Manchester so not sure they really count…

    There was another artical in a newspaper this week saying that junior doctors are under paid compared to “other STEM graduates” whilst I have a lot of sympathy for junior doctors they get paid about 10-15K more than a PhD and more than most post docs their salary will also double within a few years of finishing unlike other STEM graduates.

  13. Anchor says:

    @ Radiochemist-How is the life for you all in your profession? Specifically, not many people do radiochemistry (erroneous assumption-It’s toxic but is safe if you follow SOP) and you created a niche position for yourself in the job market. Just askin’.

    1. Radiochemist says:

      @Anchor Hey yes very true there are not many radiochemists in the world, I only started in the game pretty recently for the reasons you say to carve out a little niche and see how things went! there basically two different angles on it so production chemistry which can just be rocking up and follow the SOP (although there is often more development than you’d think to do to transfer tracers into new facilities, in general it’s also not as easy as it looks). And the research end which is actually quietly doing all right in the UK expanding in general I would say (in academia and healthcare) after lagging behind the rest of Europe and the US for many years. I still get to do plenty of organic chemistry and the recent advances in late stage modification and CH activation are really pushing things forward radiochemically at the mo. Tracer wise there’s lots of room for more in just about every area you can think of the problem is the cost of development, but there’s quite a bit of interest from local pharma here particularly in cancer.

  14. John Dallman says:

    I suspect the STEM shortage is of the right kind of STEM person to work with management. The kind who can do science like it works on CSI, with rapid answers, that naturally accord with management ideas, and won’t cost money to develop.

  15. Anon says:

    Senior management at my British pharma company think that skills are in short supply? You amaze me. Assuming we’re talking only about the folks they hang out with I’d have to share that conclusion.

  16. johnnyboy says:

    I saw that article in Pharmatimes, and my jaw dropped to the floor – I’ve been looking for a job in UK pharma for 3 years, and my field is listed as one of those in dire need of skilled labor – and yet in 3 years there hasn’t been any real posting, apart from CROs (been there done that, not interested in the drudgery at a third of the US salary). In short, what a load of complete bollocks.

  17. Chrispy says:

    About 80% of the chemists I have known in this business are no longer doing chemistry. Of the STEM occupations, this one is really a stinker. If you want to do chemistry, do something else as well — become an expert on antibody-drug conjugates, for example, and you will have many more options. Pure chemistry is very hard to stay employed in.

  18. John M says:

    Coincidentally, a post today on this fallacy in the computer science field:

  19. John Wayne says:

    Looking over the article, this is just the next ‘flavor of the month’ wherein pharma over invests in a research strategy; in this case, bioinformatics and big data. The iterative complaints about a STEM shortage is probably an artifact of this cycle of irresponsible enthusiasm for the latest buzzwords.

    It was better for us chemists when those fads gave us jobs; now, there is little upside.

    1. Oliver H says:

      I actually believe there is more than just “irresonsible enthusiasm for the latest buzzwords” behind this. In the context of the campaigns for or against a “Brexit”, Britain withdrawing from the EU, the ability to recruit internationally is an important factor. So there’s also an aspect of “If the right candidates can’t come to us, we’ll have to go to where the candidates are” in this.

  20. Yossarium says:

    I’m reminded of an old Heller quote when I see these STEM reports:

    “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

  21. spamalot says:

    “Nine out of 10 (companies) surveyed cited concern about quality and quantity of candidates for vacancies in critical and fast-moving areas such as bioinformatics, health informatics, statistics and data mining, while 90% said they are seeing poor communications and team-working skills in new recruits.”

    This reads like a self-fulfilling data driven prophecy (ala McKinsey) to generate a new wave of “spambots” – let’s hire a bunch of “big data” newbs who can’t communicate, throw a bunch of pharma data at them (which is loaded with tons of caveats and actually isn’t big data), and out will pop new drugs. Forget about R&D scientists with actual discovery experience – knowledge and creativity is so yesterday. Generating data is easier than thinking – ergo, from a mountain of data and an army of spambots, new drugs will appear – somehow, somewhere.

  22. Anonymous faculty says:

    Having recently moved into a position that bridges the gap between those hiring and the candidates (faculty), I think that some of the STEM-shortage thinking (at least at entry level) comes from the fact that every company only wants to hire upper echelon students. There will be ten candidates for ten job openings, but two students get five offers each. The eight unsuccessful companies complain to us that we aren’t sending them enough students, but we have perfectly competent young people leaving the field.

  23. Chris Swain says:

    I regularly get Pharma companies in the UK asking me if I know of people who might be available for positions. Could be they are using word of mouth to avoid sifting through piles of applications resulting from adverts?
    A quick look on LinkedIn brought up
    and a browse through “People also viewed” brings up many more opportunities.

  24. Ed says:

    So the best we can find is a low paid job with a CRO? Post docs earn more than Argenta offer!

  25. JR says:

    It’s not that there is a shortage of STEM graduates, it’s a shortage of highly talented STEM graduates that are willing to work for excessively low wages. Many new grads aren’t using their degrees in STEM fields ( If supply is high and demand is low, you can easily give lower wages to talented individuals (both new graduates and those with years of experience), especially if they’re desperate to put food on the table.

  26. Sebastion says:

    About 80% of any businesses costs are employee related (salaries and benefits, etc).

    Now the average NET profit of an S&P 500 company over the last twenty years is about 7.5%.
    This modest figure leaves little room for error.

    Given that executive salaries must increase by over 5% a year, you can see how wages for employees overall need to keep going down. Hence the necessity to increase the supply of laborers.

    Should the owners of capital not get a sufficient natural rate of return they will close down the enterprise.

    P.S -Net profit is the profit after all taxes and expenses have been subtracted from revenue.

  27. john says:

    About 80% of any businesses costs are employee related (salaries and benefits, etc).

    Now the average NET profit of an S&P 500 company over the last twenty years is about 7.5%.
    This is probably not as high as you thought it was.

    Given that executive salaries must increase by over 5% a year, you can see how wages for employees overall need to keep going down. Hence the necessity to increase the supply of laborers.
    Should the owners of capital not get a sufficient natural rate of return they will close down the enterprise.

    P.S -Net profit is the profit after all taxes and expenses have been subtracted from revenue.

  28. Anon says:


    I’m not sure if your argument holds. While the average net profit of an S&P 500 company may well be 7.5% over the last 20 years, the net profit for Pharma, Biotech, and Life Sciences was 19.5% in 2012 as noted in your reference link. That’s a pretty high profit margin. The Pharma, Biotech, and Life Sciences sector has the second highest profit margins listed in your reference link, the first being Software and Services in Information Technology at 20.2%.

    1. Hap says:

      ….strangely enough, the fields that seem most eager to recruit cheap labor or get it from elsewhere (at others’ expense).

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