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Debate: Solving the advanced therapies skills gap



Experts gathered at the Advanced Therapies Integrates 2021 conference to consider the challenges facing the sector. Here they discuss skills and how to nurture the talent needed to keep up with demand.

James Gregory, managing partner at RSA group, hosted the event, and began by asking the big question: as manufacturing technologies continue to emerge, we must have the skills to deliver the science at scale. How can we ensure that talent tracks with emergent manufacturing trends?

“The general skills gap in advanced therapies is a broader topic, and today we’re talking about the challenges in this particular space and what particular points are most important to you?”

Kevin Bruce, chief operating officer at Rosen Cell Therapies: “Firstly, to see it as an opportunity and how we, as an industry, maximise on it, because it’s all about growth.

“If you look at cell therapy, recent surveys are showing huge rates of growth, more than doubling the number of staff in the sector, in the next two to three years. So, you have this kind of confidence of this huge growth, along with the need for highly skilled jobs – and that’s the challenge.”

Lucy Foley, director of biologics and Covid response at CPI: “We have put in some good interventions to do our best to match the pace with which the industry is moving.

“We’ve got the National Advance Therapy Training Centres and, at CPI ourselves, we launched the RNA Training Academy up in Darlington, which is a partnership between CPI and the National Horizon Centre, because we understand that RNA technology has taken us by surprise, and we weren’t skilling people up to do this sort of synthetic form of manufacture.

“We’ve hired a lot of people over the last year because we’ve had to, to meet industry demand, and we’re lucky in that we have a fast-track graduates training scheme.

“We also try to ensure that people don’t specialise too early in their discipline, because it’s important that people have got transferable skills.

“However, this makes them very valuable to industry, which in turn does mean that we often lose them after a few years, and then we have to replace them.”

Bruce: “That happens with us too. We’re a business that’s undergone quite a rapid growth, especially in the last two years, and as part of that, we’ve established our own training academy with dedicated facilities and staff to onboard people who are at the beginning of their career or looking to reskill.

“We need that to have people to meet the growth, but there is always that risk that we do well at training people, and then they become attractive to others.

“Part of the solution is not just focusing on people who are coming into the industry and are at the start of their career, but also looking at what other sectors can we reskill from.”

Gregory: “Have you had any success to date and are there particular sectors that are neatly transferable into your world?”

Bruce: “A lot of what we look for in the beginning is attitude and cultural fit. And if you can get those things right, quite often the skilling and the teaching part, now we have that dedicated resource, is reasonably manageable.

“People we’ve had in the business have come from the food sector, microelectronics, NHS or other places where there are controls and procedures to follow.”

Jane Kennedy, chief business officer at Discovery Park: “I think another challenge is around data and digital skill sets. The tech industry itself struggles to find those skills, so how do you then find people who’ve got an understanding of data and digital, and that contextual understanding of biotech?

“Another one of the challenges that you see in a lot of scaling businesses is they’re trying to run and walk at the same time.

“So you’re trying to put in all the right tick box processes to make sure you bring in like-minded individuals. But inevitably, as you scale the culture changes, the type of environment that they’re working in changes, so keeping people at peace with that change is one of the biggest challenges.”

Foley: “I think that the pace of change in the science and tech world has always been rapid, but the skill sets that we lack are those like digital and data.

“But I don’t think it’s something we’ll struggle with within sort of five to eight years, as those tech savvy kids who are wise to Covid, wise to the biopharma industry, come out of school and into our industry.”

Gregory: “We have a solution that wouldn’t have occurred to people pre-pandemic, which is that you can reach talent in locations where you are not. But it doesn’t answer the topic of culture – how would leaders manage that?”

Kennedy: “So I actually live in Edinburgh, while Discovery Park is in Kent. So if the last couple of years has taught us anything, it has taught us that you can work from anywhere.

“Culture is always a challenge and it ultimately comes down to the values of the individuals that you employ, where you look for common understanding and the purpose of the business.

“Ultimately it comes down to strong leadership, to an ability for leaders to keep their employees engaged, make them understand the purpose of the organisation. And that’s probably where biotech’s really come into its own in the last couple of years, because the purpose is clear and visible for everyone to see.”

Bruce: “When we’re looking for people with more experience to come in at management and leadership roles, that’s been probably one of the most difficult spaces.

“Because you’re looking for people who have some experience, but there are not many of them around. So, you have to start thinking about transitioning people?

“We’re never going to tick all the boxes of leadership, managing GMP, cell therapy, gene therapy, because there’s not enough people to go around. It comes down to fit and people skills, values, attitudes – are you going to come in and really have impact?”

Gregory: “Lucy, would you say you’ve got a good supply of relevant people?”

Foley: “At CPI, and Darlington in particular, in the biologic biopharma face inside of the business, we recruit a lot of graduates from across the country. And we also have a really strong apprenticeship scheme.

“I would say where we struggle is with management, those with 10 years of industry experience, because people are less geographically mobile at that phase in their life. So, we’ve opted for the approach of growing our own, and retaining them, as opposed to recruiting in another level.”

“In terms of culture, what we and many other companies have done well is switching to a sort of hybrid way of work and that’s really attractive to people.”

Gregory: “Reflecting on that, traditionally younger people would ordinarily learn through osmosis, which might not work when the more senior staff have two days in the office, three days at home.”

Bruce: “We’ve been privileged enough to be able to be at work during Covid and we’ve had to have most people there because it’s manufacturing.

“And for those working remotely, it really comes down to making sure you’ve got enough communication mechanisms in place to make sure that engagement is happening.”

Foley: “The way everyone has to set their business up, first of all, is that it’s safe, physically and mentally, for their employees. So you don’t just have a lot of junior people on site with no senior infrastructure there to support them.

“As the leader, you are the shadow you cast, so you set yourself working boundaries, and you make sure that you do that in a healthy way so that you are also visible within the organisation.”

Gregory: “Question from the audience: companies involved in advanced therapies rely on consultancies, service providers, equipment manufacturers. Are these companies engaged with the wider industry training and skilling initiatives?

Foley: “I’ve been running the ATMP (advanced therapy medicinal products) manufacturing community for the last 10 years, which is a community that’s really set up at the coalface. All of suppliers and consultants are involved heavily and we use it as a way of sharing, common areas we feel the industry needs to work on.”

Bruce: “It’s important that the people who are manufacturing and designing the tools that we’re using today, and we’re planning to use tomorrow, engage with all these networks.

“One example would be how we are looking to use that in Advanced Therapy Skills Training Network in terms of bringing some of the tools providers in to provide either hands-on training or other tools that can facilitate training and how to use that equipment.”

Kennedy: “I think the pandemic has brought to the front the value of community connection and collaboration, and those organisations who are not embracing that ethos will really struggle to be part of the future.”

Gregory: “Which leads us to the subject of diversity and inclusion – how much does that feature in your own efforts?”

Bruce: “One area where we’re quite open minded is thinking about no age barriers; there will be a lot of younger people joining but we also welcome older people who are looking to reskill.

“Other areas where we’re looking at working more flexibly to be more inclusive is thinking about where part-time can have an impact; if you can work around the school runs, you provide an opportunity for parents who might be looking for something that fits in around that work life balance.”

Kennedy: “I think companies are really good at trying to create those opportunities around modern apprenticeships, and, you know, bringing people in on a relatively unskilled level at the technician level, and then progressing them through the business.

“What I think’s interesting for the sector for the future is the diversity of what university makeup might look like in terms of bringing in more students from you know, less middle-class backgrounds, and creating opportunity for them.

“It’s about the whole thing of you have to see it to be it.”

Gregory: “Do you think you can reskill somebody from another sector that’s completely unrelated?”

Bruce: “It does provide an extra challenge. If you’re coming in at that level, I think what you’re looking for is somebody who can engage with a team, but they also have to bring some knowledge that’s going to add value.

“As these therapies are coming through so quickly, there is a big challenge around that manufacturing part – you’ve got to lock things down quickly, the clinical trials are happening faster, people are moving to commercial quicker, so you really are looking for people who know what needs to be done.”

Foley: “As an industry, we need to make sure that people don’t leave the industry to go across into more lucrative industries, because they have a really good management and leadership skillset that they can use elsewhere.

“The best we can do right now is to encourage the people that we get in at degree levels to stay.”

Kennedy: “Absolutely. The challenge is going to be attracting graduates into the sector and retaining them.

“We need to be creating the right opportunity, providing career progression for those individuals, upskilling them to give them opportunities.

“You know yourself, James, from the recruitment side of things, those convergent tech roles are always the hardest to fill: bio informaticians, where they’ve got data understanding, but contextual understanding of biotech.”

Gregory: “How do you manage stress with your own people?”

Bruce: “One part of that is around having infrastructure in place to support new people joining the business and getting them trained and effective as quickly as possible, without burdening the existing staff who are trying to get things done day to day.

“The other part is listening and caring for everybody and trying to make sure that we’re managing their time, having structures in place to make sure that everybody has somebody to talk to.

“There are some real challenges in terms of autologous cell therapy, manufacturing, where it’s not a product that can be remade – sometimes it’s the patient’s only chance of a treatment, so staff are going the extra mile to get that batch made.

“They do it because they want to, but it does provide some extra stress for them when you know, they’re having to do some extra hours, things don’t always go to plan and so on and so forth. It’s a case of reacting to that, making sure everyone’s got a voice and is being listened to.”

This debate took place at the Advanced Therapies Integrates 2021 conference. See more here.

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