Tackling the skills shortages within the life sciences industry

The burgeoning life sciences industry is facing a skills shortage, particularly in digital, data and engineering. How can it close the gap?

Young female technician wearing lab coat, goggles and gloves using machine in lab setting

In the battle against Covid-19, the life sciences industry ramped up manufacturing to deliver millions of doses of life-saving vaccines for people across the world.

This success was the result of vaccine specialists working together to form strong international partnerships where knowledge and technology sharing accelerated manufacturing capabilities and improved efficiency.

Even so, for the industry to meet the challenges of the future, it needs to address persistent skills shortages in manufacturing and other key areas if it is to realise its full potential.

Skills mismatch

A global report by McKinsey in 2020, Pharma operations: Creating the workforce of the future, noted that 80% of pharma-manufacturing companies were reporting a skills mismatch.

The Science Industry Partnership (SIP) Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy, published in 2020, predicts that 133,000 extra life sciences jobs will need to be filled by 2030 in the UK alone. Andrew Croydon, the APBI’s Skills & Education Policy and Examinations Director, expects the predicted figure will be higher in 2030.

He explains that, where talent shortages exist, they are not a result of the pandemic. “We’ve been measuring skills gaps for a number of years and contributed our data to the Life Sciences Skills 2030 Strategy. Many of the talent shortages we’re prioritising today were actually identified before the pandemic emerged.”

Current skills gaps identified in the ABPI’s 2022 report Bridging the Skills Gap in the Biopharmaceutical Industry, include roles in chemometrics, formulation science, physiological modelling, computational chemistry, pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamics modelling, epidemiology and pharmacoepidemiology, computational disciplines and engineering in manufacturing.

Emphasis on digital and engineering skills

“Many of those priority areas are heavily reliant on people with digital and data skills, so acquiring people with the digital capabilities that are becoming more critical to life sciences manufacturing and across the industry generally, is something we are actively prioritising,” says Andrew.

Equally, the previously identified need to recruit more employees with engineering skills into manufacturing has arguably become more important post-Covid, but recruiting these highly skilled professionals into the life sciences industry remains challenging. This is primarily because the pharmaceutical sector is in increasing competition with other sectors better known for employing engineers.

“It puts life science businesses in direct competition with other sectors for attracting expertise in both those areas and, to some extent, with each other. While we know we can draw in candidates of the right quality, the big challenge lies in getting them in sufficient numbers.”

Building the talent pipeline

Dr Kate Barclay, Skills and Talent Consultant with the Bio Industry Association (BIA) explains the sector is receiving huge levels of investment, enabling start-up companies to expand and take their research into the clinical trials phase, and ultimately into commercial manufacturing.

To capitalise on that investment and bridge skills gaps, she says it’s important to create a strong, sustainable pipeline of candidates with appropriate and transferable skills.

The industry also needs to build on the huge increase in public awareness of the life sciences sector fuelled by publicity around vaccine research and manufacturing during the pandemic. The effects of the sector’s raised profile are explored more fully in our Following the science: have Covid vaccines boosted public confidence in STEM? article.

"We must help people to better understand their skills are highly transferable, so that those with digital and data expertise, for example, realise they can work for us rather than tech giants or in fintech"

Kate adds: “As an industry and working with government support, we need to reach out to inform potential candidates about the huge, diverse and growing number of amazing engineering and digital and data-related career opportunities in life sciences manufacturing, which also embraces automaton, robotics and AI for example.

“Going forward, we must help people to better understand their skills are highly transferable, so that those with digital and data expertise, for example, realise they can work for us rather than tech giants or in fintech. In the case of students, we can actually help them make informed choices about their future career options.”

Both Kate and Andrew agree the recent drive to attract more people into three-to five-year life sciences apprenticeships at varying levels – either post-education or for reskilling – is proving to be a very effective way to build-up the level of high-quality employees needed by the life sciences industry, long-term.

The bottom line is it’s an employees’ market. Companies have to meet millennial and Generation Z expectations on areas such as flexible working, diversity and inclusion and environmental considerations.

And so-called ‘green chemistry’ – using techniques that reduce the environmental impact of making medicines – is a new approach that has the potential to make life sciences manufacturing more attractive to younger talent

But the bottom line is it’s an employees’ market. Companies have to meet millennial and Generation Z expectations on areas such as flexible working, diversity and inclusion and environmental considerations. For businesses facing this challenge, our How the STEM world works research contains a wealth of insights on what today’s young STEM professionals really want from jobs in the industry.

Looking to the future

Undoubtedly innovations will continue to emerge and disrupt the industry, creating new demands, like the rapidly growing field of cell and gene therapy. A skills demand report by Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult predicts an almost 200% increase in the number of related manufacturing roles between 2019 and 2024.

Kate points out: “In general the demand for biotechnology, digital and data skills, AI-based drug discovery skills will continue to grow, along with the need for people to help manufacture developed products.”

Making change happen

The industry has identified the current skills shortages and future talent needs it must address for life sciences manufacturing to flourish.

And the awareness-raising effect of the pandemic and strong investment in the sector is generating excitement and interest in life sciences. This will go some way towards helping the sector bridge its manufacturing skills gaps.

But, ultimately, only a determined recruitment drive, supported by an educational push to encourage more people to learn data and engineering skills, can actually make change happen.

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