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Unemployment Day #1

I woke up this morning to go to a Biotech recruitment fair at a local community college.  My “professional” clothes fit me nicely now after over a year of feeling like I had a target on my back and finding out I wasn’t imagining it.  My actual professional clothes are denim jeans and professional chef’s clogs.  Panty hose feels weird.

The day did not start off well.  I couldn’t find my CV folder with my neatly formatted story of my life (in .doc and .pdf format with strategically placed key words).  I needed to get new copies from the stick that has all my presentation slides on it. The bright young thing at OfficeMax couldn’t operate the printers, couldn’t figure out how to send files to them and when I told her, forget it, I’m in a hurry, I’ll just do it somewhere else, pulled the usb stick out of the computer without unmounting.  {{GASP!!  Heart stopped, face blanched}}  “What did you do??  Those files are the only ones I have.  If you screwed up my presentation stick, I’ll kill you” (not really meaning to kill her. )  She jumped up from her stool and started to yell that I was threatening her.  Jeez, do I have time for this nonsense?  Went to the Staples up the road, did it myself.  It took 5 minutes.  Let that be a lesson.  Organize your boxes.

The recruitment fair was set up for pharmaceutical workers whose jobs has been eliminated and who had been out of work since January 2010.  There were recruiters and contracting companies and odd little services.  There was advice on how to optimize your LinkedIn experience (get at least three references and *complete* the profile).  One service that I had never heard of is called Encore.  Encore sets up professionals with companies that need their services for very short term projects.  I offered my CV to the Encore rep but she told me I wasn’t old enough.  ???

This recruitment fair was aimed at older workers in the pharmaceutical industry who had been displaced.  If they qualified, they were eligible for a $5000 retraining grant.  To learn…what, exactly?  I mean, they’re already about as high tech as you can get.  They’re all very well qualified, many have PhDs, some of them wrote the “How To Do It” books and papers on pharmaceutical sciences.  These are not the mythical mortgage brokers who need to be retrained to do computer programming.  These are the chemists and biologists who wrote the first protocols on how to make new drugs. Just because the whole pharmaceutical industry has decided to follow each other off a cliff pursuing biologicals doesn’t mean these people are suddenly unskilled.  Motivated, intelligent people don’t need a lot of retraining.  They just need opportunities.  And opportunities are the things in very short supply.

What I’ve heard from my former colleagues at Wyeth who were Pfizered last year (Pfizered- what happens to you when Pfizer buys your company’s pipeline but not the people who actually discovered the blockbuster drugs), is that employers actually *want* people with 15+ years of experience.  They really need the expertise.  But when they see a CV that has that many years of experience, the potential employee is “overqualified”, which is another way of saying, too expensive.  But expertise should have some kind of value.  Look, I understand that companies are trying to cut costs as the whole industry heads over the “patent cliff”.  But if you know you need the expertise, don’t try to cut corners with your talent.  After all, most of them didn’t choose to live here in the Northeast where it’s as expensive as all get out to support a family.  Pharma relocated many of these people in the 1990’s from places like Kalamazoo and Cinncinnatti.  At that point in time, their knowledge and skills were valuable and companies needed them.  They still need them, but they don’t want to pay for it.  The Wharton grad restructuring the research unit he knows nothing about , they’ll pay for.  The borglike IT drone who’s still stuck on Windows XP, they’ll pay for.  The guy who invented modern pharmaceutical science?  Unemployable.

This is what your 10,000 hours of experience will get you in the northeast:  Your company will be bought or restructured.  You’ll be worried about layoffs in the year following the big announcement.  After that year, the company will either offer you a job, maybe in another state, or lay you off.  If you accept the job in the new location, there’s a good chance your spouse will have to a.) give up his/her job and find a new one in the new location to keep the family together   or b.) accept that the family will have to live apart for much of the week.  The employee will have to rent a small apartment, sometimes with other relocated employees and travel back to the family on the weekends.  Besides adding stress to the family unit when one parent has to do the work of two throughout much of the week, there is the burden of additional cost of maintaining two residences, not to mention the blow to the quality of life.  It reminds me of the black men in South Africa who had to leave their families behind when they went to work in the mines during the apartheid era.

Or, the employee can get hired by a contracting company who plays the middle man between the company and employee.  The contracting company takes a cut of the wages; the employee pays everything himself out of the rest . There’s no job security, no benefits, no ties between employee and company.  That’s the whole point.

This is not a good thing to do with your best and brightest.  The reason they went into science in the first place is because it’s interesting.  They like the challenge.  They like to solve hard problems.  Treating them like swappable technicians that can be reduced to performing routine tasks is wasting their talents and discouraging their children from going anywhere near a lab bench when they get older.

It’s not like I expect these companies to suddenly grow consciences and become more sympathetic towards their work force.  No, the powers that be are so far removed from their research staff that such a thing is probably unrealistic.  But it doesn’t make good business sense to get rid of so much knowledge, or beat the spirits of the talent you need so that they’re not as engaged as they should be because their connection to the company is temporary and tangential.  The unemployable biotech worker will become walking warnings to anyone who dares to entertain the notion that science is a field worth pursuing.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  Especially when there is 20 years of knowledge bottled up in it with no place to go.

It’s not good for the nation’s scientific infrastructure.