Rethinking Education and the Future of Work

Sep 16, 2021

Rethinking Education and the Future of Work

Vertex is in the middle of a hiring boom. As we expand into new disease areas and new modalities with an accelerating pipeline of potentially transformative medicines on the horizon, our teams are growing rapidly. In fact, over the last 18 months, we’ve hired more than 1,000 new Vertexians, all of whom have interviewed and onboarded entirely virtually.

It’s no secret that, for employers, the talent market is extremely competitive right now. Companies are adding more inclusive benefits and introducing hybrid or remote work arrangements to promote flexibility and work-life balance. Hopefully, these changes make our innovation economy more inviting and accessible to more people. But even with this influx of flexibility, I believe we’re still missing out on a sizeable portion of the talent pool.

Here’s the proof: Read a job description for nearly any role in biopharma, or for any number of industries for that matter, and you’ll find the same boilerplate minimum requirement – a four-year bachelor’s degree. As a society, we’ve decided that the bachelor’s degree is our best proxy for determining career aptitude. We use it at the top of our funnel for screening candidates, eliminating those who don’t meet the requirement. It’s part of how we’ve defined success in this country: Graduate high school at 18, immediately attend college, get an internship or two during the summers, graduate in four years, and get a job.

Life, however, is not so linear. Did you know only 8% of Americans have a four-year degree by the time they are 22? Moreover, when we require a four-year degree, we’re further exacerbating inequities for populations that face barriers to accessing that level of education – ~70% of potential Black employees and ~80% of Latinx applicants are disregarded. As my predecessor Jeff Leiden, M.D., Ph.D., says often, we’re sitting in a sea of talent in our communities – but too often, that talent is overlooked. I couldn’t agree more.

That’s one reason we at Vertex are helping reimagine work and education, and how the two interact and intersect. We have a robust STEM education program that brings science out of the textbooks and into the real world with hands-on learning. Since we began our program 10 years ago, more than 5,000 high school students have come through our Learning Labs. Over the last few years, we’ve expanded these programs to our communities in San Diego and Oxford, UK, allowing us to reach thousands more students. Put simply, we’re showing kids in our communities how much fun science can be, and in doing so, giving them the skills and mindset to succeed in a STEM career. We know that when we open doors for them, we unlock innovation and create lasting change that ripples across our communities.

We also have the good fortune of working with some outstanding community partners who share our vision for redefining the relationship between work and education and promoting equity in the workforce, like Year Up.

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I’ve come to know Year Up and their Founder and CEO, Gerald Chertavian, well over the past year and have been thoroughly impressed by what they’re doing. Year Up pioneered an innovative approach to connecting motivated young adults with the skills and hands-on experiences they need to launch successful careers, even without a traditional four-year degree. They are intentional about serving women and underrepresented groups, similar to our STEM education programs here at Vertex. They offer training across five different areas of expertise, covering functions like financial operations and IT, and combine their curriculum with work-based learning experiences at their partner companies.

But there was an opportunity to expand their model into a growing industry: Biotech. Biotech, especially in Boston where Vertex is headquartered and Year Up was founded, is a large and growing sector of the economy and presents a myriad of options for young people who are looking to enter a challenging, mission-driven and rewarding field in which they can enjoy long and productive career.

Together, we saw an opportunity for an exciting new partnership. Vertex needs more motivated young people to join us in functions like Quality Assurance and Supply Chain Management, where a traditional college degree isn’t always necessary but technical skills, training, experience and a learning mindset are a must. On the other side, Year Up is looking for committed corporate partners who can open an untapped pathway for talent long-term.

In 2020, we announced a multiyear commitment with Year Up to establish the first-ever biotechnology curriculum to prepare young adults for future careers in research, development and medicine. Over the last few months, Vertex employees have dedicated their time and effort to create a curriculum that will equip students with the precise skills and capabilities that they need to start a full-time role in one of several functions at Vertex or other biotechnology companies. As part of the experience, students also receive mentorship – a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing future leaders.

In July 2021, 10 Year Up students in our pilot program joined us for a six-month internship, after which they’ll be ready to launch their careers. We hope they’ll stay on with us at Vertex, but of course we’ll be happy if they find careers anywhere in our industry. I anticipate some folks may decide they want to go back to school—to get their associate’s or bachelor’s degree, perhaps certification in a particular area or even an advanced degree—after their work experience. The important part is that we don’t expect them to finish their education before entering the workforce; indeed, schooling may be more valuable after some work experience.

Our biotech curriculum was designed with scalability in mind, so other life sciences companies can use it to mirror our program. Beyond biotech, there are so many growing fields in STEM and other innovation industries where we can level the playing field for all young adults while also meeting the growing demand for qualified talent. Year Up operates these programs at scale and is uniquely positioned to address the root causes of the Opportunity Divide. We’re excited to expand this program over time to additional departments and see what we can do together.

Here’s something else we’re doing at Vertex: We are systematically reviewing of all our job descriptions to see what kind of degree, if any, is truly required, and we’ve committed to drop or change the degree requirement for any roles where it’s not necessary. We’re challenging our own historical, and outdated, ways of selecting talent to ensure we don’t lose out on the tremendous talent growing up in our own backyard.

I’m incredibly proud of our partnership with Year Up and others in our community who share our passion for redefining work and education. I believe the future of work and education will be more fluid and intertwined – periods of work punctuated by periods of school with a return to work. Together, we’re redefining what success looks like and driving true equity in opportunities for all our young people.