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After years of downturn, life sciences job numbers are on rise

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While the state economy benefited from Big Pharma's boom times, it also has taken a disproportionate hit from the industry's recent contractions and consolidations.

When Merck & Co., based in the Whitehouse Station section of Readington, bought Kenilworth-based Schering-Plough, layoffs ensued; the same happened when Pfizer Inc. bought Madison-based Wyeth. And Roche recently closed its Nutley facility, leading to a loss of 1,000 jobs.

The nationwide recession played a role in the upheaval, but the pharmaceutical industry has also been experiencing a “patent cliff” — a wave of patent expirations for major drugs for common conditions such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and more. These drugs can now be replicated and sold more cheaply by competitors, with a corresponding dive in revenues for big companies.

Yet beyond the scary headlines, experts at the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development actually see a good-news picture for jobs in the life sciences cluster, which includes not only pharmaceuticals, but biotechnology and medical device companies.

It's true that employment in the cluster declined 12.3 percent in the five-year period ending in 2012, driven largely by pharmaceutical job losses. But when you look at the number of new “establishments” — which the DOL defines as locations where a business activity is taking place — for the same period, you see the chart lines start to trend up.

“Establishments in R&D and medical labs increased by 10.3 percent,” said John Ehret, a labor market analyst at the DOL. “For pharmaceuticals, the increase is 9.1 percent. That means there are places for jobs to grow.”

“We're seeing an increase in jobs out there,” said Vicky Gaddy of BioNJ, who runs the nonprofit organization's Talent Network that connects professionals and employers. “The big pharmaceuticals continue to hire, but the small to midsize market is especially robust.”


New Jersey's supply of highly educated, qualified candidates is a key factor in keeping companies here and attracting new ones. “The talent pool here is phenomenal,” Gaddy said. “We have a huge contingent of pros who know the full process from drug discovery to commercialization.”

In many cases, employees downsized by Big Pharma can transition seamlessly, or with minimal retraining, to smaller companies or to biotech or medical devices companies.

Total employment in the life sciences cluster accounts for 3.6 percent of all private-sector workers in the state, compared with a national average of 1.6 percent. New Jersey has the highest concentration of biochemists and biophysicists in the U.S., and the second-highest concentration of chemists.

Proof of demand is that even in a tough economy, jobs in the cluster have tended to pay well. The average wage in the cluster in 2012 was $126,794, more than twice the state's total private-sector average wage. These wages, $923 million overall, accounted for 8 percent of the state's total wages.

Experts expect the life sciences cluster to remain a bright spot for New Jersey-based professionals. One company, NPS Pharmaceuticals, run by Francois Nader, has increased its New Jersey staff from 40 employees to more than 175 since 2009. In that time, it has had to relocate only eight professionals from out of state.

Lee Lusardi Connor is a freelance writer based in Morris Plains.

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