Ella Show was a good student who loved science but in her senior year of high school, she decided to skip college. Like a growing number of young people she didn’t want to rack up debt without a clear idea of what she wanted to do.

Yet with little work experience other than a job at Starbucks, the 18-year-old from Lynn, Massachusetts is on a path to become an entry level lab technician. 

Show joined a tuition free program at the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy, one of a growing number of programs funded in part by the state and a life sciences industry eager to grow its workforce. And while high school friends were sitting in college classrooms listening to lectures, Show said, she was immersed in hours of lab time and knew she’d found her passion.

“This has been such an amazing, hands-on opportunity,” Show said. “A lot of college kids don’t get to be in a beautiful lab like this.”  

In life sciences, not having a college degree used to close doors. But now — at the same time high school students everywhere are questioning the need for college — Massachusetts’ signature industry is too. The need for workers is spurring companies to become more open minded about removing the bachelor’s degree requirement.

“At the entry level, it’s really about, ‘hey, listen, we don’t need a degree for this. If we have somebody that wants to learn, that wants to work hard, then let’s get them in here and let’s train them on how to do it instead of ... disqualifying those folks that don’t have a degree’” said Rich Griffin of JVT Advisors, a life sciences hiring and recruiting firm.

A young white woman with bright red lipstick and a red headband and wearing a white lab coat and blue rubber gloves holds a syringe to work on a lab project.
Ella Show in a lab at Northeastern University's Life Sciences Testing Center in Burlington, MA
Liz Neisloss GBH News

Gov. Maura Healey frequently refers to Massachusetts as the “global epicenter for life sciences” with 18 out of the world’stop 20 biopharma companies based in the state, but as part of a drive to keep the state’s edge, her administration is backing a skills not degrees approach to grow the needed workforce.

The state predicts that jobs in life sciences will expand by 25% over the next five years, and from small biotech start-ups to large scale biomanufacturing companies, there’s already a shortage of workers.

“There is an immense need for entry and mid-level workers in life science careers, that is only growing as innovation continues to accelerate,” said Jeanne LeClair, acting CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

“They fly under the radar”

Throughout high school, Brady Barry worked jobs like making pizza and at a 7-11, “just to pay the bills.” He said he had no interest in college because he’d seen too many friends unhappy with their decision to go to college and stuck with debt.

“I didn’t want to spend all of the money just to figure out what I wanted to do,” said Barry.

Though he’d always been interested in science, Barry didn’t like traditional classroom learning and said he was never more than an average student. But when he learned of the Gloucester program, the hands-on environment drew him in right away.

Education director John Doyle thinks his students are just the type of workers Massachusetts’ life science industry needs.

“They fly under the radar,” said Doyle, “They’re those people who are doing the jobs in the gig economy and working in the malls and in the service industry, and restaurants and things. And they’re behind the scenes and incredibly talented people that we never think about.”

3 young people in white lab coats gathered in a lab with little lighting looking at equipment that emits a purple glow
Students at work in the lab at the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy in Gloucester, MA
Howard Powell GBH News

Many of the students “don’t necessarily believe in the idea of college,” he said.

Gloucester’s program trains high school graduates between 18 to 30 years of age for seven months followed by a paid internship at companies which have struck host agreements with the program.

After graduating, Doyle said, the students are ready to work in a range of areas — from research and development work in biopharma to quality control roles in clinical and agricultural labs.
                                                                              
“Why not them?” asked Doyle. “Because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree or didn’t follow the traditional path that we sort of groom students in this country to follow?”

The industry’s “boots on the ground”

After his initial training, Barry landed an internship at Lowell-based RevBio which is developing a synthetic bone adhesive. Co-founder Mike Brown said he doesn’t believe “you need advanced degrees to succeed in the industry.”

A young white man in a lab wearing safety goggles a black shirt and blue rubber gloves and holds a caliper to measure a small object.
Brady Barry working in a lab at the company RevBio
Liz Neisloss GBH News

“I see students coming out of undergrad programs that know a lot of the the theory behind the mechanisms that we look at, but Brady’s got the hands-on experience where he wants to get into the lab, do things,” said Brown.

Brown called lab techs the “boots on the ground” in the industry and said eliminating the degree requirement is a boon for life sciences.

“It opens our eyes into who we can bring on for these different roles,” said Brown adding, “it allows companies like us to really fill in all the gaps from top to bottom, and allow us to get the work done that we need to do.”

Removing the college barrier will expand the pool of talent and open doors to a more diverse lab workforce, especially for those underrepresented in the industry.

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation,or MassBioEd, a nonprofit funded by the state and the industry to help build the workforce, says two-thirds of its current apprentices are people of color.

Industry leaders say reducing the barriers is a work in progress.

“It’s part of us in biotech, getting out of the mindset that you need the four year college degree,” said Sara Nochur, chief diversity officer at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals addressing the graduating class of MassBioEd’s Life Sciences Apprenticeship Program in November.

“Not this complicated monster”

After her initial training, Ella Show moved to an internship in a lab at Northeastern University ‘s Life Sciences Testing Center.

“I have 11 years of experience in the industry but I work with people with Ph.D.s, post docs,” said Eduardo Sanchez, lab supervisor at Northeastern University’s Life Sciences Testing Center. ”I see people like Ella that don’t necessarily have all these degrees, but they have that same scientific reasoning ability.”

Science needs to be “demystified,” Sanchez said, “It’s not this complicated monster that only select people can do.”

Still moving into a world filled with scientists with advanced degrees was daunting. Barry said he briefly struggled with an “inner monologue” telling him he didn’t deserve to work at a startup.

“But the truth is, I’ve worked to be here and I’m qualified to do what I do. People on my team rely on me, and that’s very nice,” said Barry.

He’s also excited to be working in a field where he feels there’s potential to improve people’s lives.

“We’re missing a talent pool out there. And until we start to tap into it,” Doyle said, “industries, not only biotech but industries all over the country are going to miss out on filling those entry level roles that they’re so desperate to hire in.”

Ella Show and Brady Barry both say they have no regrets about not making the jump to college but differ on what comes next. Barry says he now definitely imagines himself going to college to advance his current path, and while he still has “no idea” how he’ll pay for it, he’s more confident that he can figure it out.

“I see myself being in this field in the future, and I don’t think I would have been able to figure that out if I didn’t have the opportunity to test it out first, and kind of dip my toes into the water,” said Barry.

Show isn’t ready to commit to college, but knows she wants as much hands-on work as she can get. And she’s come to a realization.

“Coming in here with a lot of Ph.D.s and masters students, I was really nervous. But once I got to working, I’m like ‘Oh I know what I’m doing.’”