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Life Sciences Industry in California Defies Pandemic-Driven Employment Downturn

Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic struggle and new work-life balances have hallmarked the American experience. Increasing rates of resignation as a result of staffing shortages and burnout have forced employers to make major changes in workplaces across nearly every industry.

The pandemic has shifted workplace expectations in the favor of employees looking for roles that are amenable to a healthy lifestyle, as well as employees just looking for their ideal employer. Economic and management experts anticipate that employees will be bouncing from old jobs to new ones and back again for some time, predicting that the job market will be unstable in this way for five more years.

With the service industry finally beginning to provide panic buttons and the healthcare industry facing rising cases of both COVID-19 and patient violence, it’s a wonder that there’s a bright spot anywhere on the job market. But ‘where one door closes, another one opens,’ and it appears to have opened on the Golden Coast for life scientists.

Although California is already a well-known hotbed for science and technology, the pandemic still precipitated a surge of activity in the life science industry. From public interest and scrutiny to the awarding of $6.23 billion in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to Californian entities alone, the life science industry exploded with fame, fortune and employment opportunities.

“In sum, the industry experienced a positive 0.5 percent growth when compared to many other sectors of California’s economy, which contracted more than 7 percent,” said Joe Pannetta, the CEO of Biocom California while addressing their recently-released 2021 California Economic Impact Report. Fields that experienced significant employment increases include research and manufacturing, medical devices and equipment and biotechnology.

Nearly half a million people are employed directly by the life science industry, with another almost 1.4 million employed in proximal supporting roles, bringing in a total of over $131 billion in labor income overall. And every bit was earned: 11,000 life science companies operated out of California, netting a total of 1,700 newly granted patents.

Broadly speaking, this economic impact was somewhat geographically unbalanced. The Biotech Bay area directly employed nearly 179,000 people in the life sciences industry, almost 100,000 less than Southern California, but average annual earnings in 2020 also exceeded $179,000 while South Cali lagged behind at only $111,000 on average.

This might be due to the disproportionate representation of fields that also experienced significant employment increases during 2020, as research and manufacturing accounted for 43% of life science employment in the Bay Area. This is accompanied, unsurprisingly, by biotechnology at 17% of direct life science employment and research tools at 6%. Increased employment in these fields likely resulted in the creation of new jobs with increased salaries to attract quality candidates.

While Southern California had a competitive employment rate of 41% in research and manufacturing during 2020, fields with the next highest rates of employment were medical devices and equipment at 24% and biopharmaceuticals at 17%, each of which experienced an employment contraction in 2020. In contrast, direct life science employment in biotechnology and research tools were only 13% and 5% respectively. However, the growth seen in California’s life science industry so far shows no signs of reversing, so employment in this region may yet become more competitive in an effort to entice potential applicants.

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