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Sunday, August 04, 2013

College Degree Bubble

The cost of an education has gone up and up while the value of a college degree has gone down. Is it the students or the University who is failing? Is it the world outside of the University, where the students must go that has misjudged the value of the education? There are many who provide the marketing for a college education. Hillary Clinton told the young people to get a degree and earn $1M more than those who don't. We all bought in and our society has become more and more educated. One would think we would all be well employed, dressed for dinner, attending the opera at night.

The college graduate becomes the student loan re-payer. Like the housing bubble, the college degree is a bubble. Bankruptcy does not do away with a student loan however. The housing bubble burst leaving many lives in ruins. But there was a pressure valve in the form of bailouts, foreclosures, short sales and so on. How will we measure the trouble we've sown in our education bubble?

In the housing crisis, we began to see an increase in prices. Investment money went into more and more developments. Many of those development left ghost towns of half finished condos and houses. A student without work experience is like a half finished building. Without something else to put on their resume, the college graduate stands about as much chance of finding a job as a the half finished ghost town has of finding residents. Although we can't see the college graduates troubles the way we can see the blight of an unfinished housing development, we should be able to see the effects on society someday. Remember that the real estate industry and Wall Street, most of the major players anyway, remained ignorant of the coming storm until it hit. When it hit, we all knew it.

Like the housing bubble, you could create tiers of debt holders that rank their ability to repay their loans. Engineering students get a high rank while art history majors get a low rank. What about our industry of biotech/pharma? Where do we fit in between engineers and artists? In this article, we see a bleak picture. Challenger Gray & Christmas calculated that 297,650 biopharma jobs were lost between 2000 and 2010, when consolidations and layoffs began reshaping the industry. Judging from that number, we must admit that the biopharma industry has failed to find the value in their college educated workforce. They have failed to train them to transition from college student to industry professionals. Some people see this problem from the opposite direction.

Unfortunately for industry, much of academia hasn’t responded to the change. “The Ph.D.s that are being trained at academic institutions are being trained to do discovery research. The amount of people you need these days to do basic R&D is so small,” adds Dr. Mintz, who follows biopharma employment news and trends as publisher of BioJobsBlog. “I think we’ve entered into a new world.”

It is this type of consideration, that academia is suppose to respond to industry demands, that contributes to the lack of value of a college degree. The University will put their students through the ringer, put them into heavy debt and send them out into the world with little help market their newfound skills. Hillary Clinton can sell the education to the student but who is selling the graduate to industry? Who is telling the world that a PhD who has been trained to do discovery research has a heightened ability to learn and adapt in high stress situations. All the industry needs to do is to standardize their needs, and provide university educated people with industry training.

“We need more scientists in development, people that understand pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, toxicology, pharmacology, process development, process chemistry, biomanufacturing, those kinds of people,” Clifford S. Mintz, Ph.D., founder of BioInsights, a biopharmaceutical education and training organization, tells GEN.

BioInsights, by the way, is a full service bioscience training and career development company with expertise in medical communications and strategic management consulting. They offer training in a variety of areas including biobusiness, biomanufacturing, career development and job placement. The courses offered at BioInsights however are not unlike those offered in academia. Polymerase Chain Reaction for example, is taught in Biochem, Chem, Microbiology, Biology and on and on. There is little need to learn PCR over and over. There is a need however, to learn about and compare the latest options one has in PCR technologies. The industry needs regarding PCR should focus on management and selecting the most economic PCR system and how to apply quality management to making PCR work in the hands of young inexperienced laboratory technicians. The leadership needs to understand and train. Currently, the roles are reversed for most techniques performed in the lab. Junior lab workers often educate their leaders.

BioInsights has the right idea however. Industry needs a more specialized workforce. This however is the responsibility of industry. And here is the Cargo Cult angle today. Cargo Cults don't know why the airplanes aren't landing. Someone has to tell them and then tell them again and again until one day a true leader emerges and understands what they are being told. As long as industry and academia remain in bed together, trying to match educations to industry needs, we will continue to see college graduates working at Starbucks. 

At my last biotech job, the in-house scientists were banned from attending meetings with our contract manufacturing organization. Our small biotech in-house scientists were not qualified to effectively participate in the process development work. They were however, academia trained to speak up at meetings and make their presence known. After the CMO banned two individuals (PhDs) from attending the process development meetings, we in the small biotech did not get to learn from the CMO how they went about developing the methods that made our product! It was a huge educational opportunity that was lost. The moral of this story is that someone has to tell the Cargo Cults over and over again until they understand what they are missing. Those who wish to go from Cargo Cult to legitimate industry, have an entirely different education process to go through after they leave academia. Neither academia nor industry seems to know this yet. 

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