A critical challenge to American industry, and hence to our competitiveness in the global innovation economy, is the availability of a talented workforce. Despite historically high unemployment, the U.S. continues to experience worker shortages across a wide spectrum of jobs — in large part because students don't understand the wealth of opportunity available to them in growing fields.
Consider the life sciences industry, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, which has a difficult time finding qualified workers. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick created the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) in order to promote job creation and scientific advancement. Shortly thereafter, the MLSC created the Internship Challenge Program to encourage paid internships for students majoring in the life sciences.
The creation of the internship program reflects strong consensus views held by such organizations as the Council on Competitiveness, which determined that a highly skilled workforce is vital to our economic future. It’s also a smart way to show students that one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to have a very satisfying career in the life sciences.
The Internship Challenge Program has been an immediate success, with both companies and students responding in robust numbers (1,300 applications for 219 internships in the most recent round). Students from my own institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have won the largest number of internships in all three years of the program’s existence, and I have been asked the wonderful question, Why?
The answer is tied to a philosophy of education that, I believe, needs to be more prevalent in higher education. That is, at WPI we emphasize cooperation among students, not competition, focusing on what can be achieved through collaborative learning and achievement. This collaborative approach yields remarkable results and sets the tone for the remaining undergraduate experience, focusing not just on the acquisition of knowledge but on how to put that knowledge to use.
This collaborative spirit also pervades WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, home to WPI’s academic programs in the life sciences, which also offers incubator space for start-up firms in the life sciences, giving our students a real-world opportunity to see and experience the industry for themselves. These experiences make our students passionate about getting into research labs early on, as they have a better understanding of both the intellectual and technical skills they will need to tackle open-ended research problems in the life sciences. Working alongside start-up firms offers an experience that goes well beyond those of conventional science lab courses, providing students many added benefits, such as acquiring professional mentors who can provide career guidance and references rich in practical insights.
A focus on collaborative, team-based work, including interdisciplinary thinking and communication (plus the constant press of deadlines due to our short, seven-week terms), fits well with the demands of the typical biotech start-up or even a more mature life science company. People need to work well together, generate good ideas, make decisions quickly, and move projects forward at a rapid pace, whether as students or in the working world.
Emphasizing such skills gives students a lot of confidence, as documented in their assessments of our curriculum. Equally important, these students have a measurable increase in comfort when speaking with people in positions of authority, which makes for favorable impressions in interviews for both internships and jobs. Best of all, it exposes our students to real-world opportunities within an industry that is actively and aggressively seeking these skills and knowledge.
Dennis D. Berkey is President and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.