Adoption of ‘Pharma 4.0’, which is an operational model emphasizing heightened connectivity, transparency, adaptivity, faster decision-making enabled improved business control.
The COVID-19 pandemic somehow acted as a precursor to dwindling of existing talent in the biopharma industry, and this trend has become more pronounced in the years following the pandemic and return to ‘new normal’. This apparently came around on account of severe disruptions during the pandemic, and despite substantial or even record-breaking investments in healthcare and steady increase in the number of biotech IPOs during the 2020-2021 period, the thinning of talent continues into 2024.
Inability to access or provide training during the span of the pandemic, high turnover rates, insecurity and loss of employment due to mass layoffs, the aftermath of the ‘great resignation’ across various sectors and industries, increase in number of voluntary retirements, and lack of employment avenues thereafter have all reportedly served to create a ripple effect among working professionals globally.
In the biopharma industry, the pandemic drove need for immediate and substantial investment by both, government and private entities, kick-started by the realization of the potential of and race to get ahead in the field of personalized and customized medicine and commercialization of gene and cell therapies, which necessitate a distinct set of specialized skills. Venture capitalists were actively sought after to invest in life sciences companies, leading to increased capital directed towards early-stage companies eager to attract new talent. This has served drastically to intensify competition for skilled workers in the biopharma industry, but bottlenecks have been emerging in the form of shortage and reluctance among those qualified to fill these gaps. Another challenge is insufficient industry-wide investment in employee training and development programs, which has been raising hurdles for HR to access appropriately skilled candidates. This is more pronounced with regard to filling key positions such as process engineers, manufacturing system analysts, automation engineers, and quality assurance specialists.
Some early causes of talent shortage in biopharma industry include:
Majority of companies continue to face competition in attracting as well as retaining top talent in the industry, owing to major firms and companies raising the bar in terms of lucrative packages and offers, which some companies may not be able to match. Other factors are dynamic technological advancements in the biopharma industry, need to attract those candidates skilled and savvy with these advancements and solutions, and changing regulatory landscape in various countries and regions.
The HR challenge has been further compounded by the evolving landscape in life sciences, where increasing complexity and emerging technologies demand diverse technical and scientific skills in new hires. This complexity stems from advancements in therapeutic solutions, encompassing molecules (APIs and drug substances), delivery systems (molecular and devices), diagnostics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Simultaneously, the life sciences job market has been facing a crucial shift towards laboratory digitalization following the pandemic and subsequent need for radical changes. Adoption of ‘Pharma 4.0’, which is an operational model emphasizing heightened connectivity, transparency, adaptivity, faster decision-making enabled improved business control. However, this digital transformation necessitates a fresh skillset in recruits, extending beyond biopharma expertise to include proficiency in the underlying technology.
Despite the industry's historical resistance to change, outdated practices like manual data input and limited laboratory connectivity persist, with some labs still relying on paper notebooks. While the digital revolution enhances efficiency and result accuracy, it mandates a complete skill overhaul, introducing new software platforms to facilitate this transformative shift.
Other challenges facing candidates is driven by the dynamically evolving industry landscape and shifts in employee work environments resulting in introduction of various newer methods of engagement. This transformation has also spawned newer challenges in the processes of finding, recruiting, and hiring staff, unlike the past, where pharmaceutical companies prioritized research and innovation partnerships over recruiting pipelines.
Currently, the need in the industry is for professionals adept at navigating intricate new business models, and ideal candidates should be able to seamlessly collaborate across organizational boundaries, engage in private-public partnerships, and navigate relationships between academia, government, and the private sector. Proficiency in working within complex, cross-functional teams is essential, and additional skills integrating pharma, scientific knowledge, and methodologies like scrum theory or Six Sigma may be necessary. Managers and leaders adapting to the Pharma 4.0 reality are also required to possess relevant skills.
Furthermore, the rush to acquire talent with these unique skills or skill sets is challenging as new hires are required to undergo training in GxP practices, standards, and compliance, which is a process that takes a few months. This training period contributes to a slowdown in the drug development process and an increase in costs, all of which are adding complexity to the hiring process as a result of high demand to speed up drug rollouts driven by immediate or rather, time-specific expectations for both scientific staff and stakeholders.
Another factor that needs to be considered for falling short in terms of talent is retirement and replacement of workforce. In the next three decades, around 80 million baby boomers are expected to retire, while approximately 40 million new workers will enter the job market during this period, leading to a notable talent shortage. Specifically in the biopharma sector, which currently employs over 800,000 individuals, the presence of over 60,000 job vacancies underscores a labor shortage of around 8%. Projections indicate a 7% growth in job opportunities within the life, physical, and social sciences sectors by 2028, surpassing the growth rate in other fields.
Besides the need for ideal candidates being substantially high, candidates who may make the first cut are expected to possess new and higher-level skill sets than those of predecessors at the workplace. Also, these candidates will be expected to come along with greater flexibility and possess better capability to be suited for newer leaner environments.
Expertise is a crucial requirement for some areas in biopharma and that is Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to be able to efficiently and safely conduct drug testing and ensuring verifiable quality across design and manufacturing process. Robotics is playing a major role in pharmaceutical production, particularly in aseptic manufacturing, and need for elevated automation expertise and process knowledge is a must for anyone seeking to get engaged in a company. The challenge is that the rapid adoption of advanced technologies and solutions in biopharma and pharmaceuticals industry has spawned need for candidates to have specialized knowledge, mostly rooted in a combination of engineering and clinical training. This evolution has left little or no time for individuals to acquire these skills and attend appropriate training programs, as well as gain a foothold and experience to qualify against substantially complex needs across the industry.
While growing sentiment is that the ‘great resignation’ has fizzled out and is to be replaced by just the opposite akin to the ‘great stay’, talent acquisition is expected to remain a major challenge for at least a quarter of a decade or more. This projection is further supported by the fact that despite existing workforce being keen to stay in the job for as long as possible, there is still going to be a shortage of candidates or ideal talent to fill existing vacant positions.
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