A new Boise State program can train locals, but Idaho’s labor market might drive them away

Sean Olson//July 2, 2013

A new Boise State program can train locals, but Idaho’s labor market might drive them away

Sean Olson//July 2, 2013

Mark Smith, who is pursuing his second doctoral degree in Boise State’s Biomolecular Sciences program, works in the university’s lab over the summer. The program aims to train its students in multiple scientific disciplines. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

Boise State University is wrapping up its first year of a new doctoral program that some companies say will add meaningfully to the local labor force.

That is, if the students stick around after they finish up their doctorates.

The degree will be in biomolecular sciences, which covers biology, physics and chemistry principles, said Denise Wingett, the program’s director. It encourages students to work across the borders of the existing scientific fields in which Wingett said most advances can be found.

“The low-lying fruit has already been picked, right?” Wingett said. “So we have to train ourselves and prepare ourselves to go for some of the harder targets.”

Biomolecular sciences is the first doctoral program offered by Boise State for any of the sciences it covers. It is just the ninth doctorate Boise State offers, according to the school’s website.

There are seven students in the program’s initial class, and five more have signed up for the second year. Wingett said that once the program has been running for several years, she expects it to have about 30 students at any given time.

The average amount of time for a student to complete a doctorate is between five and six years.

For high-tech in Idaho, the fresh supply of doctorate-holders means a new, and sometimes the only, specialized workforce that companies can mold before the student finishes school.

“So many companies want hands-on experience that you get at the graduate level (that) they don’t get anywhere else,” said Andrew Townsend, Idaho Department of Labor regional economist.

Boise Technology Inc., for example, generally keeps at least five doctorate-holders on its staff of between six and 10 people, said Michael Hill, Boise Technology CEO.

Recruiting in Idaho has been challenging, however, as most students who have that level of education don’t have the specialized skills for Boise Technology, which does general research with lasers, especially using them in a process called spectroscopy, which looks at molecules in ultra-short periods of time.

“It is difficult,” Hill said. “We have not been able to hire a single Ph.D. person from the state of Idaho.”

Hill said his company has approached the biomolecular sciences program to establish a system through which students can do their research and dissertation while working for Boise Technology.

Other companies also have shown interest. Simplot’s Plant Sciences division worked with Boise State in developing the program in order to get more training for such applications as developing potato traits that better resist disease, said Doug Cole, a spokesman for the company.

Simplot Vice President of Plant Sciences Haven Baker said in a statement the company will be a place where graduates of the program can end up.

“We will have several positions in the next few months ranging from interns to assistant scientists to molecular biologists and this program enables us to provide collaborative opportunities, source local talent and keep them in Idaho,” Baker said.

Townsend said there were more potential jobs in Idaho for graduates of the program than is widely known. According to Department of Labor data, the degree may qualify graduates as biological scientists, biochemists, biophysicists and medical scientists, which approach about 680 jobs in the state right now.

“For being such a high-level, specific field, I was pleasantly surprised at what there was (available),” Townsend said.

Townsend said medical scientist jobs, of which 290 are available in the state, likely require less education than a doctorate. But lab managers who run teams of those kinds of scientists are often required to have an advanced degree, which would make biomolecular sciences graduates well-qualified.

Wingett said the program is trying to meet some of the Idaho companies’ needs and is eager to partner with private institutions for research opportunities. She said she was pleased that there are places for students to land when they finish their educations.

“There is a local need. It is growing. It is still somewhat small at this point, but the number of biotech companies is increasing, and our biotech partners are behind us,” she said.

But she warned that just because students graduate from an Idaho program doesn’t mean that they will stay in Idaho.

“Of course, others of our students are going to move outside the area and work in biotech or university settings or wherever,” she said.

Idaho offers lower wages, including for jobs that require high levels of education, than most of the other 49 states. Wingett said there are startup companies and other opportunities elsewhere that can offer graduates $100,000 a year more than Idaho can.

“The pay is lower,” Wingett said. “I imagine it’s going to stay that way for quite a few years at least, but Idaho has things to offer that make people want to live here.”

Hill said his company struggles with pay at times, especially since general research done by Boise Technology doesn’t pay as well as applied research in the labor market anyway. He said he relies on people who enjoy Idaho enough to live here despite the lagging paycheck.

“Although I like Idaho, and the people we attract here like what they see in the potential of Idaho, there are a lot who like big cities,” Hill said. “We don’t get those people.”

Wingett said the connection between the program and direct entrance into a local labor market is further complicated by the need for many students to do post-doctoral fellowships, which often take them out of state.

Hill said that no matter what happens with students in the program, the new graduates will be helpful in increasing the potential population of highly skilled workers in the labor force.

“That would be good help,” Hill said, “especially if we can help train them.”