A crisis of skills in the life sciences sector

20 Jun 2017


The pharmaceutical sector in the UK currently employs over 70,000 people. But even before we had ever heard the term Brexit, the sector was facing a shortage of skilled candidates. Back in November 2015, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) issued a report Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical sector to highlight the lack of adequately qualified workers. The report outlined the shortages in areas such as device technology, physical chemistry, pharmacy formulations and Qualified Persons.

The life sciences sector is heavily reliant on attracting the brightest and best talent from all over the globe. With roles that are increasingly technical and specialist in nature, it isn’t possible to secure suitably qualified staff from within the UK alone. Now that we know that Brexit will be going ahead, it will be essential for the life sciences sector that we get a deal on the movement of people that is favourable. We must push for a fair system that ensures that we can bring the right people in to the workforce at the right time, and with as little red tape as possible.

How will changes to immigration affect the life sciences sector?

Richard Acton, Vice Chair of the REC Life Sciences group and Director of SRG, says: “The life science industry as a whole has a responsibility to continually highlight the largest skills gaps and to ensure whatever system of immigration is in place, it recognises the needs of the industry.”

Any restrictions on the movement of workers from the EU to the UK will inevitably impact on the sector. Without the guaranteed pipeline of skill, are we are likely to see companies investing out of the UK? Will we subsequently see the UK lose its position as a global leader in R&D? Some have suggested that not only will low skilled jobs have to become automated, but so may some higher skilled ones. The role of technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an interesting debate that many are looking at.

How can we encourage people into the sector?

We can’t ignore the role of schools in promoting STEM subjects and encouraging pupils into science careers. If we want life sciences graduates to emerge in the future, we have to start looking at preparing the next generation now; perhaps focusing on gender diversity to encourage more women into the field. Ricky Martin, Chair of the REC Life Sciences group and Managing Director of HRS, says: “Skill shortages will remain an ongoing concern to the life sciences sector in the UK. As a professional service it is our role to ensure we continue to promote the breadth of opportunity in the space and that the ultimate purpose of our sector is to saves lives!”

What is the REC doing?

Government and recruiters have a key role to play in shaping the future of the sector, and the REC’s Life Sciences Group will be calling for greater involvement from both. Many of these issues will be discussed by the REC’s newly launched Future of Jobs Commission, chaired by Rt Hon Esther McVey MP. This expert group brings together leading employers, academics, think tanks, recruiters and labour market experts to explore the future world of work and provide practical recommendations to help HR and recruitment professionals plan for the future. You can feed into the discussion by emailing neal.suchak@rec.uk.com.

There are no doubt challenges ahead for the life sciences sector, and the clear steer from members is that we have to be proactive now and prepare for what lies ahead.

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