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Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (US); National Academy of Sciences (US); National Academy of Engineering (US); Institute of Medicine (US); Fox MA, editor. Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003.

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Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary.

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Foreign Scientists Seen Essential to U.S. Biotechnology


Stephen Dahms, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

The scarcity of skilled technicians is seen by the biotechnology industry in the U.S. and Canada as one of its most serious challenges. The success of this industry is dependent on the quality of its workforce, and the skills and talents of highly trained people are recognized as one of the most vital and dynamic sources of competitive advantage.

The U.S. biotechnology industry workforce has been growing 14 to 17 percent annually over the last six years and is now over 190,000 and conservatively estimated to reach 500,000 by 2012. Despite efforts by the industry to encourage U.S. institutions to increase the production of needed specialists, a continual shortfall in the needed expertise requires access to foreign workers. Foreign workers with unique skills that are scarce in the U.S. can get permission to stay in the U.S. for up to six years under the H-1B classification, after which they can apply for permanent resident status. There are currently over 600,000 foreign workers in this category across all industries, and they are critical to the success and global competitiveness of this nation. Of these H-1B visa holders, 46 percent are from India and 10 percent are from China, followed in descending order by Canada, Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, U.K., Pakistan, and the Russian Federation.

Our annual national surveys have demonstrated that between 6 and 10 percent of the biotechnology workforce have H-1B visas. The constant shortfall in specialized technical workers that has been experienced by the biotechnology industry over the past six years has been partially alleviated by access to talented individuals from other nations. However, the industry's need is sufficient to justify a 25 percent increase in H-1Bs in 2004.

Biotechnology industry H-1B visa holders are mainly in highly sought after areas such as analytical chemistry, instrumentation specialization, organic synthesis, product safety and surveillance, clinical research/biostatistics, bio/pharm quality, medicinal chemistry, product scale-up, bioinformatics and applied genomics, computer science, cheminformatics, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics.

Forty percent of H-1B foreign workers are at the Ph.D. level, 35 percent M.S., 20 percent B.S., and 5 percent M.D. In comparison, the U.S. biotechnology industry technical workforce is estimated to be 19 percent Ph.D., 17 percent M.S., 50 percent B.S., and 14 percent combined voc-ed/ community college trained. These and other survey data by industry human resource groups clearly show that the H-1B worker skills match the most pressing employment needs of the biotechnology industry. The data demonstrate that maintaining a reasonably-sized H-1B cap is critical to the industry. Although the national annual H-1B visa cap was raised from 115,000 to 195,000 in the 106th Congress via S. 2045, the cap has already been exceeded. The increased cap remains in effect until 2003 and efforts are under way to ensure that it remains high.

The Third Annual National Survey of H-1Bs in the biotechnology industry found that 80 percent are from U.S. universities, and 85 percent of those eventually get green cards. Companies now spend, on average, $10,200 in processing fees and legal expenses to obtain each green card, an estimated cost to the industry of more than $150 million over the past 5 years.

In the wake of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, debate has been focused on more restrictions on foreign students, a development that would have a severe impact upon the competitiveness of the U.S. biotechnology industry. Clearly, the H-1B route provides a temporary solution to shortages in the national and domestic biotechnology labor pools, shortages mirroring the inadequate production of appropriately trained U.S. nationals by U.S. institutions of higher learning. The reality is that universities have inadequate resources for expanding the training pipeline, particularly in the specialized areas of the research phase of company product development. Efforts should be directed toward influencing greater congressional and federal agency attention to these important topics.

The author of this article, A. Stephen Dahms, is executive director of the California State University System Biotechnology Program (CSUPERB); chair of the Workforce Committee, Biotechnology Industry Organization; and a member of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee. Statistical data are from surveys conducted by CSUPERB, as an activity of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's Workforce Committee; and for Canada, from Statistics Canada.

Copyright © 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK36383


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