Life Sciences Industry Threatened by Skills Shortage

scientist picking up test tube out of group of tubes

There is something of a recurring theme among the life science, healthcare and biopharma industries: a shortage of skilled employees will lead to a decrease in innovation. It’s not that the educational system is somehow letting these industries down, it’s more that these industries are changing so quickly, it’s difficult to keep up.

A recent op-ed written by Ian Marison, founder and chief executive officer of the Biofactory Competence Center in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Peter Levison, executive director of Business Development for Pall Biotech, which appeared in PharmaExec, emphasized this point. They note that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and process analytical technology (PAT) in drug production, as well as various approaches using data science, big data, and machine learning, are requiring life scientists with mathematical and computing skills.

They write, “A survey last year by the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes found that traditional manufacturing positions were the easiest functional roles to fill; the layoffs experienced towards the end of last year do indeed suggest an oversupply of such employees. But when you look at the skill sets required to manage biopharmaceutical manufacturing processes—in particular around engineering, data analytics and process development—the skill set shortage challenge persists.”

This also appears to be more prevalent in Europe, particularly as Brexit remains in limbo. In February, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) warned that the UK was in “danger of losing its world-leading research and development status, backed by the country’s two biggest pharma investors, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline.”

An analyst with GlobalData wrote that in the past decade the UK has seen a 16 percent increase in students studying STEM topics. However, the number of EU students studying STEM topics in the UK rose more than 52 percent over the same period, with the number of non-EU students raising more than 63 percent.

The analyst, Gavin Davidson, wrote, “With Brexit creating lots of uncertainty in the UK’s future, there is no denying that it could act as a deterrent for overseas higher education students coming to the UK to study and then work. Restrictions currently being debated in the Commons in the form of a post-Brexit immigration bill would see immigrants earning less than Á30,000 facing restrictions—something which would hit many undergraduates and graduates starting out in the R&D sector.”

Marison and Levison note that the academic institutions do a great job in serving the life sciences sector, citing innovation hubs in Boston in the U.S. and Cambridge in the UK, as well as emerging centers of excellence in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. “The problem is not with the quality of the students coming through these programs, or with the standard of education they are getting. Rather it is the practical industry understanding—or lack of it—that these students have when it comes to applying scientific knowledge in an industry setting.”

Levison uses that statement as a kicking-off point for his own company, Pall Biotech, which offers a lot of practical training.

But they’re certainly not the only place. In December 2018, BioSpace profiled Tonja Green, Program Director of the Master of Science program at San Jose State University (SJSU) in Medical Product Development Management. Green has a significant background in clinical program management at various startups and biopharma companies and brings that expertise and those connections to offering up more of a practical, hands-on training program.

Green specifically calls on industry professionals for some of the courses, saying, “I’m in charge of the core clinical course and in those courses, I bring in the experts, guest lecturers, people from all different disciplines who can speak to the topics current in the industry.”

Marison and Levison argue that academic institutions simply can’t keep up with the pace of change in the industry. And, in fact, they don’t believe universities should be expected to. Which was Marison’s opportunity to describe the Biofactory Competence Center, which was founded in 2016 “to create a suitable bridge between academia and industry. It provides courses to hundreds of highly skilled academics and researchers to help them build the practical skills required to work in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, in particular around new and emerging aspects of the industry, such as automation.”

A Cielo study, European Talent Acquisition Trends: Productivity, Profitability & Personal Impact, found that 42% of “Talent Leaders” saw skills shortages as their biggest problem. And the only way they thought it could be fixed was for their organizations to invest in innovative ways to attract and retain top talent.

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As such, they recommended three core recruiting tactics. First, they recommend data-based decision making, noting that successful talent programs utilize data to identify where they are losing key candidates during recruitment and whether the process is at fault or if the skills they’re looking for don’t actually exist.

The second was employer value proposition (EVP). Because competition for top talent is so intense, it’s important that companies do a better job of showcasing their values, company culture, and career paths to job candidates.

And third, talent pooling. Cielo writes, “Whilst candidates may not be looking for a role right now, it is imperative for organizations to have ongoing dialogue with candidates who have the key skills they are looking for.”

Cielo goes on to point out that talent acquisition executives have a lot on their plate from the day-to-day demands of the business, which is why many are shifting away from traditional, in-house recruiters and launching partnerships with Recruitment Process Outsourcing providers.

Of course, for the ambitious life science graduate looking for an exciting and rewarding career, this can be an opportunity, rather than a problem. What is the industry really looking for? Do you have those skills? Can you get them if you don’t? Can you then emphasize them during the recruitment process?

For the industry, it might be an opportunity to develop internal training programs that strengthen staffers’ skills in the appropriate areas. Marison and Levinson write, “To realize the potential that new treatments and technologies hold, the industry needs to recognize this challenge and do everything it can to put skills at the top of our collective agenda.”

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