Finding New Talent
The UK has an enviably strong advanced medicine R&D base, as evidenced by the high number of cell and gene therapy clinical trials under way – 12 percent of the world’s total as of January 2020 (1). In January 2016, UK politicians and industry leaders set up an Advanced Therapy Manufacturing Taskforce to help support the sector. One of its main recommendations? We must address the skills gap. Here, experts from the UK discuss how the country is tackling this thorny issue.
Netty England, Kit Erlebach | | Longer Read
Advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMPs) are opening up new therapeutic avenues for the pharmaceutical community, but despite the growing demand for cell and gene therapies, a significant skills bottleneck threatens to hold the industry back from its projected growth: the production process for ATMPs requires a highly-skilled workforce to maintain its operations – and there simply isn’t a large talent pool to pull from.
The UK’s Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGT Catapult) published a report late last year detailing the skills demand of the industry – and there were clear concerns when it came to recruiting talent. Over 80 percent of respondents to an industry survey expressed their concerns about recruiting and retaining skilled individuals and highlighted a worrying fact: “a lack of skilled and experienced people will be one of the main issues that could slow down or cause a delay to the forecasted sector expansion” (2). Because of the complex nature of the CGT sector, individuals with prior industry experience in biopharma manufacturing are ideal to fill these roles, but the competition for these professionals is fierce. The question remains: how do we bolster the talent pool for CGT?
Any sector that wants to attract employees must be able to sell itself. For the CGT industry, this means building awareness of the real opportunities. Attracting people to a career in CGT should be straightforward given the excitement of the field and the fact that it is developing truly ground-breaking medicines. Tapping into declining industries, such as traditional manufacturing, could also provide some of the staff required to maintain the growth of the CGT sector. These individuals are well-accustomed to working in regulated environments and could become a competent source of individuals, with the right training courses. However, this would only address part of the problem. New talent is also needed to fill the skills gap, but another concern highlighted in the report is the fact that many academic courses are not producing graduates and postgraduates who are industry-ready, limiting the number of professionals able to enter the industry with the competencies required to fulfill the roles that are and will become available (2).
Apprenticeships will be crucial to bringing in new talent and will help people understand the opportunities that lie in the pharma industry. When thinking of careers in medicine and health, many people do not think about the pharma industry at all! In the UK, the government aims to create quality occupational pathways through the development of employer-led apprenticeships. The Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community, or ATAC, is one example of an initiative developed to attract new talent to the field. Launched by CGT Catapult, the program helps professionals and fresh talent develop the skills and competency needed to manufacture ATMPs at scale. The CGT Catapult was awarded £1.5 million by the UK government to set up the initiative in response to the Advanced Therapies Manufacturing Action Plan, a report published by MMIP highlighting the measures needed to ensure the future success of the ATMP industry (4). The action plan outlined six measures that the industry would need to take for the “long-term management” of the sector. These measures included:
- Strengthening and securing an internationally competitive fiscal landscape to attract investment
- Targeting and capturing internationally mobile investment
- Maintaining science and innovation funding
- Setting out an end-to-end talent management plan to secure relevant skills for emerging manufacturing technologies
- Identifying predictable and viable routes to market
- Developing long-term regulatory strategies
With the aim of contributing to a robust talent management plan and addressing the outlined measures, ATAC has launched apprenticeships to develop talent in STEM careers beyond healthcare. Its recent UK roadshow is one example; ATAC’s experts met with employers, teachers and career advisors to educate them about the options available to students in the CGT space and promote the rewards of a career in advanced medicine as well as the advantages that taking on apprentices bring to employers (5). ATAC currently delivers a range of different apprenticeship programs that develop the technical skills, scientific knowledge, and professional behaviors of 72 apprentices across 27 companies and this is growing.
To further encourage companies to take on apprentices, the UK government introduced its Apprenticeship Levy. The levy, which was first introduced in 2016, applies to businesses whose total yearly salary expenditure amounts to £3 million or more and is used to take on and train apprentices (6). The initiative has now been extended to ensure that small and medium enterprises, who can’t pay the levy based on their earnings, can still access apprenticeships.
Beyond apprenticeships, academic institutions are also taking steps to “industrialize” their students. Universities now offer integrated and specialized modules, as well as postgraduate courses, that prepare students for the realities of the ATMP working environment and equip them with practical skills. In 2019, for example, iMATCH (one of the Advanced Therapy Treatment Centres (ATTCs) across the UK) partnered with the University of Manchester to develop a masters course to ensure students had the choice to select modules covering various ATMP indications (7). Many universities across Europe have also taken similar steps. Organizations like the League of European Research Universities (LERO), however, believe that more can be done to secure the ATMP workforce. In a report published in 2019, the European organization argued that more funding would be required to ensure the “continuity of staff employment as well as career development” and to work toward the “predicted pipeline” of the therapeutics the industry aims to develop (8).
Retaining experienced professionals
As well as bringing in new talent to the CGT sector, we also need to ask how we retain seasoned professionals and develop the next generation leaders.
In the UK, the BIA Manufacturing Advisory Committee, which was set up to support the country’s commercial biomedicine manufacturing community, launched its pilot leadership program (LeaP) in 2017 to upskill the workforce. LeaP brings together professionals from the biomedicine and CGT communities, with the intention of building interdisciplinary networks and giving employees from across the UK’s scientific sector the skills necessary for taking on more senior company roles. Participating companies give their employees the chance to visit other companies’ worksites, share best practices, and identify ways of improving their own operations. The program also encourages ATMP companies to learn from companies whose experience lies outside of life sciences and pharma. Last year, a participating cohort of companies visited BMW to learn about the flexibility of their assembly lines and evaluate what could be applied to their own practices.
In the years since LeaP was first set up, the program has trained and provided mentorship to two cohorts of life science and CGT companies and continues to support these companies to further build industry ties through its alumni network.
When considering the workforce of the future, we also need to think about how technologies are changing. Digital tools, in particular, are on the rise. This was highlighted in a report published by the Science Industry Partnership. The UK-based organization’s Skills Strategy 2030 collated research that identified skills gaps across the country’s scientific sector. It also highlighted that a failure to integrate IT, artificial intelligence, and machine learning into business practices would be a significant challenge for the ATMP sector (9). The report noted that professionals with specialist knowledge of computer-aided design and manufacturing would be essential for the future of ATMP manufacturing as the industry shifts away from manual processing. On an international scale, pharmaceutical companies are, however, moving toward increased collaboration with technology companies, and working to improve their employees’ digital literacy. This was highlighted at the 2020 bioProcessUK conference, where speakers from Microsoft and Cytiva addressed the ways the industry could better apply learnings from the tech sector to benefit future generations of drugs. And the relationship between the two industries is not one-sided. Going forward, companies from both industries must be able to identify the things that drive progress within the other and train their staff to adopt these practices for their mutual benefit.
Creating a robust workforce will be a challenge for the ATMP sector, but it couldn’t come at a more exciting time for the industry. The ATMP sector is rapidly growing around the world. And as patients begin to benefit from advanced therapies, the number of people interested in playing a role in their development will likely also increase.
Netty England, Bioprocessing Consultant, BioIndustry Association and Kit Erlebach, Strategic and Transformational Venture Manager at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies.
The Industry Has Spoken
Though the ATMP sector is breaking new therapeutic ground, the talent required to maintain its progress needs to be acquired quickly. A report published by the UK’s Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult surveyed over 95% of the ATMP developers to identify their concerns. Its findings showed:
- Of the companies who participated in the survey, only one did not expect to increase its talent pool over the next five years.
- Insufficient access to talented staff will limit the UK ATMP sector’s growth
- Though survey respondents believe that the Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community is positive, it will only account for up to 10 percent of the skill demands. The vast majority of the future workforce will be transferred from other regulated industries (up to 60 percent) and through the recruitment of graduates and postgraduates (up to 30 percent).
- Employees competent in data management and the use of automated technologies will be another essential part of the ATMP workforce, with 63 percent of respondents citing the importance of digital skills for the industry.
- CGT Catapult, “Press release: UK accounts for over 12% of global cell and gene therapy clinical trials” (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/3eMpaOj.
- Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, “UK cell and gene therapy skills demand report 2019” (2019). Available at: https://bit.ly/3dgSpYG.
- Medicines Manufacturing Industry Partnership, “Advanced Therapies Manufacturing Taskforce: Delivery of the Action Plan” (2016). Available at: https://bit.ly/2UbqaTJ.
- Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community, “Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship
- Community roadshow showcases value of apprenticeships for upskilling in the advanced therapies industry” (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/3as3DXz.
- BIA, “Developing technician skills for the emerging advanced therapies sector in the UK” (2017). Available at: https://bit.ly/33FvbqX.
- Advanced Therapy Treatment Centres, “Masters of Science (MSc) degree in ATMPs has opened to enrolment at the University of Manchester”, (2019). Available at: https://bit.ly/2VJpO7I.
- LERO, “Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products”, (2019). Available at: https://bit.ly/2W7zCr3.
- Science Industry Partnership, “Skills Strategy 2030” (2020). Available at:https://bit.ly/2WtOcta