Every Nov. 11, our country pauses for Veterans Day to honor the men and women who’ve served in the armed forces. It’s a great tradition. A growing number of life science companies are honoring veterans every day through targeted recruiting and hiring of some of the 200,000 military personnel who transition to civilian life each year.
As biotech executives in the military-rich life science hub of San Diego, we’ve been in on the secret for many years: Veterans make excellent employees, managers, and leaders for our industry. Recruiting from this talent pool is primed to intensify nationwide as the biotech job market — one proven to bring significant rewards to veterans and life science companies alike — continues to heat up.
But the military-to-biotech transition requires some finesse. To get the most mutual benefit from the partnership, life science companies must refine their perceptions of veterans. And veterans must be open to adapting to the nuances and expectations of the life science industry.
An industry in need of talent
Before sharing some of what we’ve learned about matching veterans with meaningful jobs in the life sciences industry, let’s look at why this is such a timely issue.
First, the life science sector is growing rapidly. Life science firms directly employ 1.74 million people in the U.S., with more than 273,000 high-paying jobs created since 2001. While markets like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego lead the pack in terms of their concentrated biotech presence, the industry has become a major economic driver across U.S. states and cities (41 states experienced net job growth in the life sciences between 2014 and 2016).
The jobs that need to be filled go well beyond purely scientific roles. While we can always use more scientists and engineers, a recent survey of biotech employers in California revealed near-term plans to significantly boost headcount in areas such as process development, manufacturing, and data analytics. Technical skills for these roles are important, but they can be learned. A growing number of colleges and universities offer accelerated certificate programs and degrees geared to people entering the business and manufacturing sides of the life sciences, and many life science companies already offer specialized training in-house.
What biotech employers really need in new employees are strong “soft skills.” They want to hire professionals who can adapt and grow as companies evolve: people with excellent teamwork, communication, leadership, and problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like the veterans we know.
Talent in need of rewarding work
It may not be difficult to see why life science companies would want to recruit veterans. But why would veterans seek careers in the life sciences? The job market is booming right now. They could find civilian jobs in other sectors.
But those jobs may not be as fulfilling or financially rewarding as a career in biotech. In a 2018 BIO report, the average annual wage for a U.S. bioscience worker was $98,961, more than $45,000 higher than the average wage in the U.S. private sector. Compensation is particularly important in cities such as San Diego, where the cost of living is high; if veterans can’t find high-paying jobs, they’ll move elsewhere even if they’d prefer to stay.
Then there’s the mission factor: Military veterans are deeply driven by mission. So are life science companies. We aren’t here to sell more widgets; we exist to save lives.
That’s something that draws many of us to our work, and it’s a particularly good fit for individuals who’ve already devoted themselves to the mission of the military — whether they’re transitioning from the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, or Navy. Just ask the former Navy Tomahawk missile officer who serves as Millennium Health’s senior business systems analyst, or the former Marine Corps communications equipment technician who now oversees all of Millennium’s lab operations, including an 80-person team.
In our experience reaching out to life science employers through the Biocom Institute’s Veterans Initiative, we find that misperceptions can get in the way of veteran recruitment. Hiring managers may believe veterans will be too rigid or disciplined for what’s required at their nimble, fast-growing companies. They need to rethink that.
Veterans are terrific at working in ambiguity and within an evolving goal structure. Success in the military actually depends on being able to adapt quickly. (For an insider’s understanding of how well military training translates into corporate decision-making, we highly recommend reading “Extreme Ownership” by former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.)
Veterans need to adjust their perceptions, too. Many assume that every role in a life science company requires a science degree, which isn’t the case. Then there’s the challenge of how to best present themselves on resumes and in interviews. Through career coaching workshops, we’ve found that veterans are often so dedicated to the concept of “team” that they have trouble speaking about their individual contributions.
With a little help or coaching, these men and women can learn to become comfortable sharing their individual contributions to a unit or mission’s success. After they are hired into life science roles, they may also need coaching as they learn to operate in a more ambiguous and often non-hierarchical corporate environment, where unfiltered and immediate feedback tends to be less frequent than what they were trained to expect in the military.
By overcoming these relatively minor hurdles, the life sciences industry can realize the huge opportunity that exists for veterans to fuel the next phase of growth for the life sciences. These individuals can enrich our industry with their diversity of experience, their dedication to mission, and their commitment to reaching individual and organizational goals.
At a time when the life science workforce needs great talent, and lots of it, let’s devote the time to recruit, train, and mentor military veterans into rewarding private-sector careers. There’s no question that the investment is worth it.
Andrew A. Lukowiak, Ph.D., is CEO of Millennium Health. Joe Panetta is CEO of Biocom, California’s life science industry advocacy association.