A state unemployment rate of 2.9 percent doesn’t quite capture how tight the job market is in Massachusetts.
“I’ve never seen anything like it — and I was in the tech industry during the boom of the late 1990s,’’ says Chris Robinson, the chief talent officer at Third Rock Ventures, a Boston firm that provides capital to biotech companies. “And this is much greater than that one, as far as companies’ need and the lack of people with the right skills.’’
So what are fast-growing tech and biotech companies doing to fill open jobs in the waning days of 2019?
The approaches are slightly different in the two sectors. Biotech is more likely to be relocating executives and scientists from other states — paying a steep price for moving expenses, temporary housing, and costs associated with selling a home somewhere else. But tech companies are more likely to be hiring people in other states and letting them stay there. There’s a general sense that long-distance collaboration can work better when you’re writing code, or providing customer support for an existing software product, versus trying to perfect a new drug in the lab.
“Remote work does not really work for a lab-based employee,’’ says Michael Gilman, CEO of Arrakis Therapeutics, a Waltham biotech.
The website of Sage Therapeutics, which develops drugs for psychiatric and neurological disorders, lists 46 open research and development roles in Cambridge, with job titles like “senior scientist, quantitative pharmacology’’ and “manager, pharmacovigilance support.’’ (I confess: I didn’t take either of those classes in college.) The publicly traded company has hired more than 500 people over the past few years, says vice president of talent Marcus Tgettis. “We recruit nationally and globally, offering different types of relocation services and packages,’’ he says.
On average, moving someone from out of state to the Boston area can cost $40,000 to $50,000, Tgettis says — a big chunk of which is for temporary housing. In Boston and Cambridge, that can cost $6,000 to $8,000 a month for two or three months, “and in some cases that doesn’t include parking, which as you know, is an issue,’’ he says. Companies like Sage also cover costs such as moving, storage, and real estate fees related to selling a house or condo. For renters, it may reimburse a new hire for any fees they had to pay to end a lease early.
At Editas Medicine, a Cambridge company that uses gene-editing technology to develop medical treatments, “our recruiting team will often spend hours discussing and giving suggestions on local neighborhoods based on a candidate’s individual needs and specifications,’’ says Cristi Barnett, head of corporate communications.
Once someone decides to join, they are assigned a “relo buddy’’ — “another employee who has also recently moved to the area who can help them navigate the moving process and offer advice from their own experiences,’’ Barnett explains.
At Third Rock, which helps form new biotech companies, provides funding, and offers assistance assembling teams, Robinson says that it tends to be easier to recruit people from states like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, versus the West Coast. Californians are often wed to the weather and lifestyle, and they can be tough to lure east, he says. But for scientists and executives already living in the Northeast, “there has been a true massive migration in the past three years,’’ Robinson says, as big pharma companies have shuttered locations and laid of employees elsewhere, while opening sites in Massachusetts. “The jobs are here, not there.’’
“We are all willing to pay whatever it takes to get the talent here,’’ Robinson says. “The bigger companies offer mortgage buy-downs; sometimes we just offer cash. You tell us what your situation is: Do you need to sell a house? What are the closing costs going to look like?’’ Reimbursement for relocation costs, he adds, “depends on your level. At the C-level, we’ll give you a couple hundred thousand, or lower down the food chain, it’s $50,000.’’
In the tech sector, it isn’t that employee relocation is unheard of — it’s just much less common.
Remote hiring is more of a focus, explains Kristin Patrick, vice president of talent acquisition at Bullhorn, a company that sells software to help companies manage the hiring process.
“The barrier to relocation is expense,’’ she says. “We consider it at the executive level, but below that it has been more productive and cost-effective to embrace the ability to have remote workers,’’ some of whom may travel to the company’s Boston headquarters regularly. Of the company’s 640 US employees, about 20 percent work remotely, as opposed to in a Bullhorn office.
Roughly 18 months ago, the startup Springboard Retail switched from a Boston office to a distributed working model, wrote Allen Williams, director of customer experience, in a reply to a question I posted on Twitter.
“We now hire people all over the country and world, and we all work remotely,’’ Williams writes. “It really opens up the talent pool. I expect more and more tech companies will do this over time.’’ The company sells software to retailers that replaces traditional cash registers.
Of the 2,600 employees at HubSpot, a Cambridge company that sells software to support sales and marketing, about 10 percent work remotely, says Becky McCullough, director of global recruiting. That includes not just individual contributors like a customer support specialist or software developer, but also managers who oversee other employees. “This enables us to attract a wider range of diverse talent and support employees where they work best,’’ McCullough explains via e-mail. The company recently created a dedicated “remote work’’ page on its website to highlight job openings that can be filled by far-off employees, and profile several who already work for the company.
Marcus Tgettis, like Robinson, used to work in the tech industry, helping companies such as Constant Contact build their workforces. One hypothesis he has is that tech companies tend to be quicker to adopt new tools — like videoconferencing systems and chat software — that help spread-out teams work together seamlessly. “There is a workforce innovation mindset in tech that outpaces other industries,’’ he says.
As an industry, might biotech eventually embrace more remote workers, rather than uproot and relocate people to work in the same location? It could evolve that way, Tgettis says.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.