The Bay Area is known for its employment ups and downs. With a huge surge and subsequent heavy blow from the dotcom bubble, then another jab from the dip in tourism post 9/11, this is a region whose job market never seems to plateau. Not surprisingly, just as this corner of the country becomes comfortable being known as a biotech hub things are changing once again.
The big buzzword in the Bay Area’s employment sector these days is nanotechnology—the business of creating very small materials by mixing components at the molecular level. Keeping in mind that one nanometer is equal to one-millionth of a millimeter, this is really precise work. After all, the width of a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometers, so this job sector takes high tech equipment and highly trained employees. Called nanoengineers, these individuals must have an advanced degree in one of the hard sciences such as chemistry, physics or electrical engineering.
One of the more promising products to be developed using this technology are solar panels. Instead of being manufactured under the expensive process of entire buildings devoted to chip fabrication, these panels can be constructed from light diodes made from simple chemical processes in a lab. This same technology is similar to what has furthered the flat screen in computer monitors and televisions are furthered along by this nanotechnology. Biotechnology is also a beneficiary of nanotechnology since the decreased size of everything from measuring tools to biomarkers greatly facilitates delivering the product to patients.
According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a total of 71 entities—from private companies to academic centers—are working on nanotechnology in the Bay Area. This is the highest number in the nation, with Boston coming in second with 36 different groups working in the field. Some of the major players in California are Nanomix and Invitrogen, both working on developing medical technologies using ultra-small components.
While the biotech industry cannot be considered a new job market for the Bay Area, it has certainly evolved to the point where certain facets of it can be considered an emerging industry. It takes an average of fourteen years for new drug to reach the market once it has entered into the web of FDA approval processes. This is after all the preparatory work before it even reaches the FDA. As a result, the job market on the biotech scene has expanded to include a more clinical outlook.
Thirty years ago Genentech first opened its doors and the biotech scene was born. At that time the major effort was in laboratory research and companies could only look into the distance to see the horizon of bringing pharmaceutical drugs to market. In recent years, however, these companies are seeing all their years of working with test tubes and Petri dishes finally pay off. Now they need nearly as many clinical researchers as they do academics.
The level of detail, and therefore paperwork, that is needed to follow each patient participating in a clinical trial is immense. In order to oversee these intricate studies a team of people who have worked with patients are a must. At a minimum they need to be able to take vital signs, complete blood work, and take a highly detailed patient history. For more advanced medical studies, studies typically require participants undergo high resolution imaging procedures.
As a result of all these changes, biotech companies continually fall short of their hiring needs for people who have worked in a clinical setting. Luckily, this doesn’t mean a person has to have completed four years of medical school and a grueling residency to qualify. Anyone with a pharmacist or nurse practitioner degree is an equally strong candidate.
All of these emerging industries, and the highly stable ones that preceded them, have lead to a huge jump in population size for the area. This has lead to its own emerging job market for all the services required to support a thriving city. The increased need for urban planners and civil engineers who can create usable housing developments, roads, and sewage treatment plants is tremendous. Given the liberal outlook of most of the city’s residents, there is also a huge jump in the need for the ‘green services’. This can be anything from responsibly disposing of all the shredded documents the city produces to providing effective waste management for all the trash that a growing city generates.
It will take time to see if these new industries have any staying power. If recent history is any predictor, however, then we are sure to see major changes in each sector as the years go by. With a little luck, each of these Next Big Things will contribute to keeping the Bay Area the dynamic and vibrant city that it currently is.