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January 19, 2018

In this Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, file photo, the Pfizer flag flies in front of world headquarters in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

For jobs in the bio-pharmaceutical industry that once only required two-year associate's degrees, employers are increasingly demanding candidates have four-year degrees.

That hiring trend is spotlighted in a new report out this month from MassBioEd, a Cambridge nonprofit. Some observers worry the shift puts community college students at a disadvantage in the job market.

The college and work experiences of Ana Maria Ovalle illustrate how bio-pharmaceutical companies are overlooking a talented pool of potential employees.

Her education at Bunker Hill Community College, Ovalle said, prepared her for a paid summer internship with a biopharma company in Cambridge.

"The lab portion of it really prepares you for entry-level jobs,” Ovalle said. “It introduces you to cell culture. I also learned protein purification."

After her internship, the 40-year-old Colombian immigrant, who had already had a degree from a university in Colombia, landed a job at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Andover, Mass. Today, she works in one of Pfizer's bio-chemical labs.

In this lab, few of Ovalle's colleagues are community college grads like her.

"I have worked with people that have come from a four-year school that did not know cell culture or were not exposed to the type of skills that I learned at the Bunker Hill," she said.

Traditionally, lab technicians at biopharma companies like Pfizer have only required an associate's degree. But that's changing, according to Pete Abair, executive director of the MassBioEd Foundation.

Despite the industry's investments in community college programs, these companies are demanding more candidates have four-year degrees – unnecessarily, Abair suggested.

"These associate's programs are particularly geared and focused on those skills that, in fact, a lot of bachelor's degree programs don't concentrate on," Abair said.

Since 2014, the hiring trend has accelerated.

While job openings requiring a bachelor’s degree have increased by 44 percent, those requiring an associate’s degree have grown by just 16 percent.

The life sciences industry in Massachusetts is expected to generate 12,000 entry-level jobs in the next four years – jobs, Abair said, community college graduates could do.

"We have these graduates with great competencies at the associate level,” he said. “They are well-suited for these positions and it is really in the best interest of the companies to draw from a wide-range of different degree levels."

Economists say the shift in biotech's hiring practices is widespread.

"It's happening in every industry and it's been happening very deliberately since 1983 across the whole economy," noted Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Back in the early 1980s, before the Reagan administration’s A Nation At Risk report on education, two out of three American workers only had a high school degree.

Today, two thirds of all jobs require at least some college. Even with unemployment around 4 percent and the labor market getting tighter, Carnevale said bio-tech companies can afford to be picky and demand deeper skills.

“Knowing things is not enough anymore,” Carnevale says. “Being able to use what you know to solve problems, think creatively, produce new knowledge on the job is more and more what's demanded, and employers are willing to pay for a higher degree levels to get that.”

At Pfizer, Ovalle got her job before the industry raised the bar.

Still, she advised high school students interested in life sciences to start at a community college.

"To me, it's a no-brainer,” she said. “It prepares you for an entry-level job and then you can transfer all of your credits for a bachelor’s degree."

What Ovalle calls a no-brainer might expand the hiring pipeline in bio-tech. For now, though, economists recommend an industry reset so that more companies recognize the competencies of community college grads.

WGBH's Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story.

Earlier: Earlier: No Bachelor’s Degree? No Problem – 30M Jobs In The US Require Less Than A BA

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