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Washington State’s life sciences sector has historically been strong, even among the best in the nation. Industries like medicine, research and agriculture are right up there with aerospace, shipbuilding and tech as mainstays of the state’s economy.

But the industry has been stagnant, even shrinking, in the past few years, and a new report identifies a leaky talent pipeline and a booming technology industry competing for workers as big parts of the problem.

A similar report released in February found that the state had lost 3 percent of life sciences jobs between 2011 and 2014, and the newest study cited drops in patent activity and industrial R&D activity as other indicators of lagging growth.

Of course, there are many factors behind those statistics. The report cited factors including a lack of affordable office and wet lab space and a lack of investment capital, and industry leaders have also pointed to the expiration of state support for various aspects of the industry.

But the most prominent factor, cited by life sciences executives and also shown in data, is the shortage of qualified talent.

Juno Therapeutics CEO Hans Bishop (left) speaking to VP of Research and Receptor Discovery Francois Vigneault inside Juno’s new headquarters in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

That shortage is being seen in some life sciences industries across the country, particularly in the medical field. But in Washington State, a highly competitive technology industry means that life sciences organizations also struggle to find engineers, IT professionals and other technology-related professionals.

That’s in spite of world-class universities and research institutions, which attract talent from all over the world to be trained in the life sciences.

“The report tells us we need better alignment with industry needs and existing workforce capabilities,” Commerce Director Brian Bonlender said in a press release. “The good news is the study helps provide a roadmap to accomplishing that. It highlights the industry’s strengths, such as its workforce diversity as compared to other high tech industries.”

The paper outlines six initiatives that would help close the talent gap, including establishing a hands-on STEM training academy in Washington State.

But the majority of the initiatives address one specific phenomenon: Washington’s secondary education programs graduate hundreds of well-qualified life sciences workers, but many then leave the state to take jobs elsewhere.

“Many years of schooling and local connections have been invested in this top technical talent and to see it migrate out of the state and to other life sciences hubs such as Boston, or the Bay Area in California, is a painful loss for Washington,” the report says.

“Feedback from post-doctoral and current graduate students indicates a disconnect between this top talent cohort and the industry, and among many of these individuals there is a strong desire to remain in Washington and to work in industry rather than academia,” it adds.

The report suggests steps like creating a more direct pipeline between secondary education and industry, creating a targeted intern program and supporting employer-led fellowship training programs.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is a vocal supporter of the life sciences industries, and has voiced support for past measures to help the industry. However, more dramatic steps will need wider support from the state legislature and other actors.

The report was commissioned by the Governor’s Life Science and Global Health Council, and conducted by research and strategy consultant TEConomy Partners.

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