Will the Biotech Industry Have the Right Talent for the Workforce of the Future?

Biotech Companies are Rethinking their Training and Development Programs to Develop New Skills for their Evolving Workforce.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the BioHealth Capital Region’s (BHCR) biotech sector is booming. Advanced biomanufacturing, cell and gene therapy, vaccine development, and the medtech industries have all seen record growth over the past few years.

Biotech innovation is accelerating. There are over a thousand cell and gene therapies in the clinical pipeline. Big Data, automation, and gene editing technologies like CRISPR — in addition to the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year—are revolutionizing drug development and forcing the industry to reimagine what’s possible. 

It’s truly an amazing period in life science history. 

However, the quickening pace of R&D and commercialization, along with the ongoing boom happening across the industry, has revealed some stark realities. First, there is not enough manufacturing capacity available; second, the pandemic revealed that the global supply chain is more vulnerable than once thought; finally, and perhaps most critically, there are more biotech jobs than there are skilled workers to fill them.  

In our last story on this biotech boom focused on the lack of manufacturing capacity and possible solutions. Today, we’re going to take a look at what might be the biggest obstacle of all to delivering more life-saving medicines to patients around the world: Developing a “leveled-up” biotech workforce that can execute and manage the life science jobs of the future. 

The Challenge

There is a two-front battle going on right now when it comes to biotech workforce and talent development. 

On the one hand, there is a very clear supply problem. Not only are there not enough skilled workers to fill the abundance of current roles at life science companies, but there are also not enough new workers in the talent pipeline to meet the growing future demand that the industry is projecting. 

On the other hand, due to the pace of innovation and adoption of new technologies, there are looming questions around what the future talent needs will be in five to ten years for companies. 

So the biotech industry not only needs more talent, but it also needs to adopt better processes and mechanisms to reskill existing talent to handle new technologies and modes of operation, some of which are not yet known or fully fleshed out.

While the lack of highly skilled workers is an obvious bottleneck, retraining or reskilling the workforce is a challenge that sometimes flies under the proverbial radar. 

A 2020 Mckinsey & Company report entitled, “Pharma Operations: Creating the Workforce of the Future,” noted “The most significant disruptors in pharma operations have been and will continue to be new product modalities (such as cell and gene therapy), digitization, and advanced analytics. These disruptors have already created a skill mismatch in more than 80 percent of pharma-manufacturing companies. Executives perceive only a fraction—10 percent—of the impact of disruption that frontline employees say they are experiencing firsthand (see the sidebar “About the study”). In fact, more than half of all frontline workers already feel the impact of this disruption on their roles, and an additional 25 percent expect their roles to be effected within five years.”

The ongoing convergence of artificial intelligence, Big Data, and automation within biotech, along with the emergence of cell and gene therapies and gene editing technologies, exacerbates these workforce bottlenecks. Existing biotech workers are in short supply; they need to be trained in new methods, techniques and technologies; and industry is unsure what the biotech workforce of the future will look like. 

That same McKinsey & Company report found that “Only a minority of companies (40 percent) believe that they really know which skills are needed now, let alone in ten years (less than 25 percent).”  

Evolving Training and Development Programs

Adapting to new innovations is not something new to the biopharma industry, in fact, the very industry is built on the process of translating new discoveries into novel medicines for patients. What’s new is the velocity and variety of innovations that are converging together on the field. 

Training programs have been around for years within Universities, inside companies, or through independent organizations that help researchers and industry professionals keep up with the latest techniques and technologies so that their companies remain at the forefront of the field and they can continue to move their work forward with new discoveries.  The Bio-Trac program, at Montgomery College, has been around for more than thirty years and has trained more than 17,000 scientists on an ever-evolving roster of workshops, led by renowned industry-leading instructors. 

Bio-Trac’s hands-on workshops cover the latest advanced research methods and applications, including Gene Editing IPSCs with CRISPR/Cas9, 3D Cell Culture, Exosomes, Hepatocytes Derived from Human iPSCs, Flow Cytometry, Single Cell RNA-Seq, and others. Director and Co-Founder, Mark Nardone, coordinates with a nationwide network of scientists to ensure his programs are addressing the most important needs in the field, and they are able to add more programs as new techniques emerge.  

“It is an exciting and challenging time in research and biomanufacturing. The pace at which the field continues to evolve is truly amazing,” shared Nardone.  “The development of newer methods, improved technology and in many cases multiple applications (CRISPR, Single Cell, 3D Cell Culture etc.) continues to create a demand by scientists for hands-on training for in order to stay current in their research.”

The bottom line is that the pace of biotech innovation is outracing the valiant efforts of university systems to produce the talent needed by the life science ecosystem. Outsourced training and professional development programs, or corporate training and development programs now play a more crucial role in meeting the evolving skills that companies need in their workforce. 

Across the industry, both in research and in biomanufacturing, companies continue to evolve their learning and development processes and expand their training budgets and departments to meet the more pressing and evolving training needs.  The good thing is that the training industry is also experiencing advancements in new technologies and capabilities that are providing companies with more innovative ways to train and upskill their workforce.  

During a recent webinar hosted by Universities at Shady Grove (USG) and the Maryland Tech Council, Aaron Vernon, VP of Technical Operations at TCR2 Therapeutics shared that what he has used in the past and what his company will be using in the future is training simulators. These simulators help increase their capacity to certify their workforce on their proprietary autologous cell therapy processes and maximizes the opportunities for training under various situations.

“There are so many potential decisions to make or things that could go wrong at every process step for us,” Vernon shared. “Using systems where we simulate what is going on with the equipment and allow people to make decisions and have the system respond appropriately, is not unlike what pilots do for their training.  Pilots log hours and hours in a simulator where they learn to deal with issues that could happen with the plane before they ever get in the cockpit of a 777 and do it live. These are the things we need to do to increase training capacity and ensure our workers are qualified according to the highest quality and safety standards.”

These examples show how important learning and development solutions are becoming for companies in order to keep their workforce trained and certified on the newest equipment, processes, research methods and technologies. 

Companies realize that investing in training not only keeps them competitive and helps them meet their hiring needs, but it also increases employee retention which has become a top concern in this booming biotech market that is experiencing virtually 0% unemployment. But that’s a whole topic by itself that we’ll reserve for another piece. 

As the industry continues to face talent shortfalls, executives still aren’t quite sure what the future worker looks like. However, when patients’ lives are at stake, you can bet that this industry will continue to step up to the plate and find a way to meet these talent challenges head-on.