Whatever anyone can say about the economy in New Jersey, biotech is still doing all right. It is one of the few sectors that continues to hire and has curried the favor of the Christie administration, which has poured generous grants and incentives into the state’s pharma and biotech companies.
Debbie Hart, the executive director of Hamilton-based BioNJ, has benefitted from such support in her organization, a trade group for the state’s life sciences sector.
State grants have allowed BioNJ to put together a series of career-focused events aimed at keeping the life sciences New Jersey’s flagship industry.
On Tuesday, June 26, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., BioNJ will host “Career Connection,” a biosciences career fair, at Rutgers Student Center in New Brunswick. Career Connection is designed to put candidates face-to-face with companies looking to fill positions and professional organizations that can help candidates further their careers.
The event will also expose candidates to state grants for training and education programs geared toward the unemployed.The event is free to attend, but registration is recommended. Visit www.BioNJTalentNetwork.org to register, or www.BioNJ.org for more information.
Hart received a bachelor’s in communications from Trenton State College (TCNJ) in 1981 and a master’s in public relations from the Newhouse School at Syracuse.
Her father was an undercover detective for the Mercer County Sheriff’s office, and her mother was purchasing manager with the Office of Administrative Law for the State of New Jersey.
Early on, Hart worked in public affairs, but otherwise she has worked entirely with associations. She owns an association management company, Association Associates Inc.
Training for the unemployed. Vicki Gaddy, the director of Bio-NJ’s Talent Network, says that New Jersey provides generous incentives for unemployed life sciences professionals to update their skills or try new things. The state provides up to $4,000 worth of grant money to individuals, for the duration of their unemployment, to pay for courses and professional development programs.
“Sometimes people come out of college with many degrees,” Gaddy says of life sciences professionals. “But they want something that contemporizes their skills.” Say, for example, marketing. “People in life sciences are scientists,” she says. “They might not know anything about marketing.” Or, if they do, they might not understand social media marketing.
Also, says Gaddy, people in life sciences often have R&D backgrounds, but no training in regulatory affairs — a huge growth segment in the biotech sector. State-sponsored training, she says, can provide “a nice piece you can add to your resume.”
Gaddy has spent more than 20 years as a human resources professional, with the majority of her time spent with companies involved in the life sciences in New England.
Most recently she worked at Virgin Mobile, but she has also worked in senior-level positions at Mannkind Biopharmaceuticals, Nitorum Corporation, International Pharmaceutical Research, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. She earned her bachelor’s in business/human resources management from American Intercontinental University.
The well-rounded. The confluence of shrinking economy and technological advancement has created an entirely new normal in how most businesses operate. Fading are the days of specialists who zero in on one area of an industry. Rising in their place is the well-rounded worker who knows the A-to-Z of how his company or industry works.
As a rule in big-biotech, however, companies are not yet looking too hard for the all-around candidate, Gaddy says. Big life sciences still want specialists and still want people who know an area better than most.
But Hart says that the opposite is true when it comes to small companies. “Small companies need people who are well-rounded,” she says. People who understand how to do their jobs, but also understand market and regulatory affairs and finance.
The reason is simple — small companies don’t have the manpower to create whole departments dedicated to specifics. Small companies might only employ three or eight people, and anything you know that can help a company that size run more smoothly and efficiently, the better a candidate you are for it.
Hence, that $4,000 in training grants through the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development comes in handy for rounding out your skills.
On the other side of the coin is the fact that small companies are where much innovation happens, particularly in pharma. The model of pharma used to be that the mega-player — Wyeth, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Meyers Squibb — used to develop new drugs and products from within.
But increasingly, new products are being made at smaller, more single-minded companies. As these companies make advances in specific areas, larger pharma companies buy them and take the product global.
Other ends of the life sciences industry are not yet following the big pharma model, Hart says, but small companies are still driving much of the industry forward. And innovation at all levels of the life sciences is happening where the staff is smaller. And more well-rounded.
Interviews. Google Inc. is notorious for its outlandish interview questions — what would you do if you were an inch tall and caught in a blender as the blade was about to start? — designed to gauge how a candidate thinks in abstract ways. There is no right answer, but there are plenty that won’t get you the job.
This model of creative interviewing is spreading, and Gaddy says the life sciences are no different. And though she’s unaware of any HR reps who ask about blenders, she does say that more companies are getting more creative with their interviewing in an effort to see how a candidate’s mind and personality operate.
But Hart reminds that the fundamentals are still important when interviewing. “Candidates still need to provide evidence that they are qualified,” she says. “And well-rounded.”
Related to Hart’s last statement, Gaddy says that candidates from large life sciences firms should be prepared for the reality of life in a small firm. Interview questions in small firms are aimed at finding people who know a lot of things. But they are also geared toward finding candidates who operate well with few people.
“They’ll ask how you assimilate to a small company,” Gaddy says. “Can you show experience leading projects or teams? It’s all about how well you can work in small groups.”
Overall, this is a theme for biotech, according to Hart and Gaddy — the technology and the workplace might be changing, but fundamentally, to get ahead in the life sciences, you need to be qualified and you need to be good at what you do.