Practical recommendations for a path forward for both biopharma C-Suites and their employees.

Kerry McKittrick is a co-director of the Harvard Project on Workforce, an interdisciplinary applied research project between the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work Project, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this role, McKittrick leads teams of researchers focused on building more equitable education pathways to economic mobility. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she was a Leadership in Education Fellow.

Q.As Forbes recently shared, “For the past two decades, the biopharma sector has witnessed the shedding of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and all signs point toward an acceleration of these losses.”1 With “skills-hiring first” being the mantra over a bachelor’s degree requirement for this “new-collar” approach to recruiting talent at Fortune 500 firms like IBM,2 which group has the best chance of career longevity for the biopharma sector?

McKittrick: With accelerating new technologies like generative AI disrupting the labor market in unprecedented ways, it is likely that all of the workforces will face challenges to securing and retaining good jobs in the future, though blue-collar jobs may be least exposed to gen AI. Research shows that AI will change tasks dramatically, particularly in office jobs, and people will need to upskill to stay competitive.3

The reality is that 44% of all US workers are low-wage earners, stuck in low-mobility jobs. From recent findings of The Project on Workforce,4 people of color are overrepresented in this population and the majority of individuals have less than a college degree. For them, wage growth has stagnated since the 1980s. Many have been cycling in and out of roles which provide neither valuable credentials nor a path to advancement. Building new collar pathways and leveraging skills-first talent approaches has the potential to open opportunities to economic advancement for these populations.

Your readers are likely looking for jobs that can provide a sustainable income to provide for them and their loved ones. Right now, the fact is that a college degree is still the best gateway to economic prosperity,5 but apprenticeships and other new-collar approaches can also provide a ticket to the middle class. I think the most important thing for your readers to know as they think about the future of the workforce is that—across all sectors—we will need to embrace new skilling pathways and be ready to adapt as jobs change.

Q. Given the findings of the Harvard Project on Workforce, what are three practical recommendations for a path forward of both biopharma C-Suites and their employees?

McKittrick: First, C-Suites need to reconfigure their talent management processes. With emerging technologies like generative AI changing roles, executives need to provide timely and clear expectations of what skills are required, not only to prospective employees but also to current employees looking to advance. This will enable employers to hire and promote people based on their skills, not just degrees, and open their talent pool to the millions of Americans without degrees.

They also need to reconfigure their talent pipelines from the education sector. For instance, community colleges continue to offer a diverse, often-untapped, resource for prospective new hires. By building partnerships with community colleges, employers can help train and recruit skilled individuals. One pain point is that many community college students are unaware of job opportunities and requirements. One study found that, when provided with accurate salary information, students are more likely to change their major.6 Companies should make sure students have accurate information and skills for their field.

Second, C-Suites should consider building clear advancement pathways for their employees, including by providing coaching and upskilling opportunities. Our research pointed to how career navigation is a relatively new field, but it is important to design pathways around employee needs and provide substantial support. Executives should consider leveraging the report’s findings around ten principles for a pragmatic path forward.7 I would challenge your C-Suite leaders to train and incentivize their middle managers to support upskilling and advancement opportunities for their reports.

Finally, for existing biopharma employees as well as prospective ones, one needs to quickly embrace upskilling, networking, and coaching opportunities. With the half-life of in-demand skills constantly shortening, your 2024 New Year’s resolution should include allocating a set number of hours throughout the year for acquiring projected competencies that will be required for 2025. Do your homework within your current employer and connect with other professionals in your field to understand what they see on the radar across your industry and other verticals. By doing so, you will have a better chance for career longevity regardless of which collar you’re wearing.

About the Author

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

References

  1. Mass layoffs continue across the biotech sector, what does this mean for pharma’s future? Forbes, August 23, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ritanumerof/2023/08/22/mass-layoffs-continue-across-the-biotech-sector-what-does-this-mean-for-pharmas-future/?sh=1d68a4343fa1
  2. Ammerman, Collenn, Groysberg, Boris, and Rometty, Ginni, The New Collar Workforce, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2023,
  3. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/07/26/which-u-s-workers-are-more-exposed-to-ai-on-their-jobs/
  4. The Project on Workforce is an interdisciplinary, collaborative project among the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Harvard Business School Managing the Future of Work Project, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/10/college-degree-economic-mobility-average-lifetime-income/675525/
  6. Fuller, Joseph B., McKittrick Kerry, Seibel Sherry, Wilson Cole, Dash, Vasundhara, Epstein Ali, Unlocking Economic Prosperity, Career navigation in a time of rapid change, The Project on Workforce at Harvard and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, 2023
  7. https://889099f7-c025-4d8a-9e78-9d2a22e8040f.usrfiles.com/ugd/889099_0d1d2d0e1a8e43e8bbc14dba00f00fb9.pdf