Pharma & drug development

Plugging the skills gap

According to a recent report, if the biopharma industry wants to remain central to the UK economy, it will require more investment in training. But in such a fast evolving industry, how can training keep pace? We find out.

As UK industry surveys the post-Brexit fallout, the biopharmaceutical sector can afford to remain confident about its prospects. Accounting for some 22% of business R&D – a larger chunk than any other manufacturing sector – the industry remains one of the country’s most enterprising, and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

This said, if UK pharma is to retain its position at the forefront of innovation, it will need to keep a close eye on its skills base. Perhaps now more than ever, it is essential to ask whether the country’s talent pool is optimally matched to the work available.

A report released last year by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) goes some way towards providing answers. Entitled ‘Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry: Maintaining the UK’s leading position in life sciences’, the November 2015 report takes a comprehensive look at current and future needs.

Through surveying 93 industry leaders across 59 organisations, the study authors aimed to flag up any worries, while assessing how the UK education system might address key skills shortages. In particular, they wanted to determine how the landscape had shifted since the last time the report was created, comparing current challenges with those identified in 2008.

“We were looking at have things changed, what hasn’t changed and what needs therefore to be done,” says co-author Sarah Jones, head of education and academic liaison at ABPI. “We sought responses not just from our member companies but also from some of the smaller life science and biotech companies, and also a wider range of contract research organisations than we have in our membership. A lot more is being outsourced to that type of organisation now than it was in 2008.”

An industry in motion

While the last few years has seen some well-publicised restructuring in the pharma industry, with a number of companies reducing their UK headcount and closing research sites, this has not in itself affected skills needs. It simply means a talented young graduate might need to look beyond the likes of AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

“More work is being done in collaboration, for instance by higher education institutions and smaller biotech companies,” points out Jones. “So the same skills are needed in the UK for drug development and discovery, even if it’s not at a pharmaceutical company. Two examples of that which we highlight in the report are clinical pharmacology and the in vivo sciences – these skills are needed and it’s difficult to get enough qualified people in the UK.”

The real changes since 2008 therefore have less to do with the outsourcing boom, and more to do with the evolving nature of research itself. Certain fields – such as bioinformatics, health economics, statistics and data mining – are advancing so quickly that training programmes may not always be able to keep up.

It is testament to the dynamism of life sciences that, back in 2008, many of these areas were not even listed as future concerns. In the 2015 report, however, mathematical and computational skills were flagged as the biggest worry, with 91% of respondent citing concerns about the quality and quantity of candidates.

“The key areas we’ve identified are ones where people need to integrate their mathematical knowledge with their science knowledge, and use those skills around big data,” says Jones. “Other surveys have found similar gaps, in the university sector as well as in industry.”

Focus on maths

In terms of what can be done, Jones says it largely comes down to encouraging the study of maths after GCSE level.

“Not that many young people, particularly those doing bioscience as opposed to chemistry or other physical science, continue to study maths beyond 16,” she says. “The new level 3 core maths qualifications – which can be studied in sixth-form college – are perfect for people who need to have that understanding of maths to supplement the other subjects they’re studying.”

Unfortunately, the current funding structure provides little incentive for schools and colleges to offer these qualifications. It may therefore fall to teachers to recognise their usefulness, helping students see how studying maths could blaze a trail towards job opportunities.

Universities, too, should place an increased emphasis on maths within biosciences courses, while raising awareness of post-graduate training in statistics, data mining and mathematical modelling.

Reforms underway

As well as looking at new areas of concern, the authors also wanted to determine whether the recommendations of the 2008 report had made any difference. Both reports, which were targeted at government, research funders, academia and the ABPI’s Science Industry Partnership, were created with a practical goal in mind – to identify actions that might be taken by the relevant stakeholders and highlight appropriate avenues for investment.

As Jones explains, there has been positive action in some areas, with work remaining to be done in others.

“One of the things that was implemented since the 2008 report is that our recommendation that the Royal Society of Biology should accredit undergraduate bioscience degrees,” she points out. “That has really taken off in the last year or two – there are now a high number of undergraduate bioscience degrees that are being accredited, and students from those degrees will have a much better skill set to allow them to go straight into industry and hit the ground running.”

Since the 2015 report was published, the government has brought out a higher education white paper, which sets out its government’s plans to reform the higher education and research system. Jones feels this holds significant long-term potential.

Another promising development is the government’s Apprenticeship Levy, which is due to come into force in April 2017. All large employers will now be required to fund apprenticeships, leading to a new route for skills development across many pharma sectors.

“In the last couple of years, new standards for apprenticeships for our sector have been developed through the ABPI’s Science Industry Partnership,” says Jones. “I think that’s a key group for us to continue to work with, and perhaps get more apprenticeships in mathematical and computational areas.”

Targeting investment

Of course, with only a certain number of STEM-specialised applicants to go round, the pharma industry must compete for talent with other life sciences sectors, which may suggest that the pharma industry needs to do more to attract them.

However, the APBI report did not find a huge shortage of STEM graduates per se. These findings were backed up by the Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision and Graduate Employability, released in April, which found that large numbers of bioscience graduates were actually struggling to find jobs.

The implication is clear: the much-decried skills gap is less about STEM training per se, and more to do with specific areas of need. The UK pharma sector is highly heterogeneous. If it is to remain competitive, education investment will need to home in on these areas, ensuring a better fit between the higher education disciplinary structure and the direction that industry is taking.

“I don’t think from what I’ve seen the number of graduates is a problem, but there is a potential problem with the skills that they come out with,” says Jones. “As we identify in the report, there is a whole set of emerging skills needs.”

This article appears in the August 2016 edition of Pharma Technology Focus 

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