Sanofi, Pfizer and More Use Upskilling to Solve the Life Science Talent Shortage

Sanofi, Certara, Pfizer and Thermo Fisher are facing hiring challenges head-on with a common strategy: upskilling programs. They use these programs to fill open roles while training and retaining existing talent.

Talent is becoming increasingly hard to find in the life sciences. According to a report published by CBRE, life, physical and social science occupations had the second-lowest unemployment rate of all U.S. occupations as of April 2022, at 0.6%. As the report put it, “finding life sciences research talent may prove extremely difficult.”

One of the problems contributing to the labor shortage is skill gaps. In a recent McKinsey Global survey, 87 percent of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps in the workforce or expected to experience them within a few years. Less than half of the respondents had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

That’s not true for some life sciences companies, though. Sanofi, Certara, Pfizer and Thermo Fisher are facing hiring challenges head-on with a common strategy: upskilling programs. By upskilling current employees, these companies are filling roles while training and retaining existing talent. Here’s how each of them is approaching upskilling within their organization to meet customer, employee and patient needs.

Sanofi Launches Digital Accelerator Academy

In June, pharma giant Sanofi launched its Digital Accelerator program. The program has several purposes, such as developing products that will support data and artificial intelligence in healthcare. But one unique aspect is the Digital Accelerator Academy.

Sanofi’s Accelerator Academy is built to upskill the company’s internal workforce. By partnering with the international nonprofit organization Women In Tech, Sanofi wants to close the gender gap in the digital field. The Digital Accelerator Academy will reach approximately 300 people in the next two years at various locations that will best support Sanofi’s global digital strategy, attract new talent and further integrate agile ways of working into the company’s culture.

The program is proof Sanofi is delivering on its promise in 2021’s global digital strategy to invest in the upskilling of over 16,000 employees as part of a plan to foster a data-driven company.

“The Digital Accelerator will help us democratize the use of data, develop an agile mindset across the company, and accelerate innovation for patients and healthcare professionals – at speed and scale,” Arnaud Robert, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Sanofi, said. “Our investment in the Digital Accelerator is another demonstration of our commitment to transform the practice of medicine and deliver better outcomes for patients.”

Not only will the upskilling program help Sanofi fill its open positions, but it will also contribute to the company’s culture. In a press release, Sanofi stated the Digital Accelerator is “committed to diversity with internal transfers, external hires, [and] the launch of the Accelerator Academy.”

Certara Sees Upskilling Potential in Africa

Biosimulation company Certara wants to gain an edge in the already-competitive field of pharmacometrics, or the emerging science that quantifies drug, disease and trial information to aid efficient drug development and/or regulatory decisions.

The problem? Most Ph.D. and Pharm.D. students don’t learn that in school. Although some universities have fellowship programs in the space, much of the skills are acquired post-doctorally. So Certara is starting training programs in pharmacometrics, and it’s starting by upskilling in a location with a massive pool of untapped talent: Africa.

“There’s a significant need for talent in this area. That’s why the company is looking further afield, to other geographies for talent,” Craig Rayner, president of Certara, previously told BioSpace. “We see Africa as a sandbox of innovation….Where many see challenges and market failures, we see opportunities. Those challenges force us to be innovative in the way medicine is developed. Our view is that it’s very much a glass half-full perspective.”

True to its word, Certara announced its first training programs in November 2021. Certara is starting by upskilling physicians and Ph.D. candidates who have data analysis experience. The Applied Pharmacometrics Training Fellowship in Africa aims to build scientific and leadership capability in the region by enhancing the skills of scientists and facilitating knowledge transfer to wider scientific communities.

The fellowship consists of a three-month virtual training program, followed by a three-month on-site immersion program. The on-site portion offers participants training on regulatory-quality pharmacometrics analyses and reports. From among these cohorts, Certara plans to choose the first Certara consulting team located in Africa.

“We are excited to launch the fellowship and bring on board our first class of fellows based in Africa. Our goal is to make the training durable and expand our scientific partnerships worldwide. We believe that there is an opportunity to apply cutting-edge quantitative approaches to advance drug development programs that address diseases with unmet needs in Africa and globally,” Rik de Greef, senior vice president of global quantitative science services at Certara, said.

Pfizer Leads With Learning & Development

There are three main categories of learning in Pfizer’s extensive Learning & Development program: required learning, necessary learning and desired learning, Sean Hudson, head of Learning & Development at Pfizer, told LinkedIn. The model is so successful that HRForecast named Pfizer as one of the top seven upskilling programs other companies can emulate.

Required learning refers to the knowledge necessary for being in a highly regulated industry. Necessary learning refers to skills that make employees successful in their roles, and desired learning refers to anything else someone is curious about, regardless of whether it is connected to their current role.

By understanding those three types of learning, Hudson has shaped Pfizer’s L&D program around a culture of constant growth, including upskilling. If an employee is interested in learning a new skill, Hudson’s advice to managers is to take a personal approach with the employee.

“If I understand what this role is, what the skills are that are going to allow that person in the role to really deliver impact, then we can evaluate, ‘Well let’s assess that person against these particular skills. Where do they have strengths? Where do they have deficits?’ And then, how can we embed learning to ensure that their strengths are maintained and constantly reinforced? And so for the spaces where they have gaps or deficits, how do we upskill them, at least first to a level of competence that we think is essential?” Hudson said.

There are practical elements to upskilling. Pfizer knows its employees are busy, so the program includes “time-boxed learning.” These bite-sized learnings can fit into free slots in a person’s schedule, whether they have five minutes or an hour.

With this upskilling program, Pfizer is helping meet labor demands. But there’s another perk: employee attraction and retention.

“We have historically enjoyed really strong talent, but recognize that today’s workforce includes learning as a part of their job-satisfaction quotient. We want and need the best talent to achieve our mission and drive performance. And because we are mission-focused, we are focused on achieving a learner-led culture where learning is celebrated. Then we will continue to attract and retain talent,” Hudson said.

Thermo Fisher Offers Learning For All

In March, Thermo Fisher was named a winner in Training Magazine’s Training APEX Awards for the 11th year in a row. The awards assessment team evaluated the scope of each organization’s learning program, including its budget, reimbursement, infrastructure, evaluation, human resources and metrics.

The programs through Thermo Fisher University are one of the company’s benefits to its employees. The company offers a wide range of employee learning and performance programs, providing ongoing training and development that engages employees for optimal performance.

“Our proprietary Thermo Fisher University development and training hub offers online education, training in our proprietary Practical Process Improvement (PPI) Business System and comprehensive opportunities for our colleagues to develop and grow in their careers and skills,” the company’s website states.

The programs are also available for others who use Thermo Fisher’s software or equipment. Thermo Fisher offers a variety of in-person and online courses through its Digital Science Training Services and the Digital Science Virtual Training Platform. These services include trainings and certificates for hard skills, like data analysis and lab management, as well as soft skills like leadership development.