Addressing the skills gap in the pharmaceutical sector

Published: 2-May-2023

Ken Molloy, Technical Success Manager at SolutionsPT, takes an industry wide issue — the skills gap — and zeroes in on how this impacts the pharmaceutical vertical

The skills gap is an issue that stretches across the entire industrial landscape. From manufacturing lines to offshore process facilities, trained and skilled employees aren’t entering the workforce as quickly as those retiring from it.

Without proper course correction, this issue could reach a critical point whereby we see operators throughout all sectors working without the right level of skill to ensure that jobs are filled.

Another outcome is a deepening of an extant issue: businesses spending vital budget on keeping the ageing workforce on the payroll to offer support. Whichever way the pendulum swings, the skills gap needs to be solved with proactive steps that can be taken now. These issues are magnified ten-fold in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. 

Industry expertise
Pharmaceutical production is inherently more complex than most other manufacturing specialisms and, so, is the day-to-day life of the operator. Although many industrial workers are highly educated, either through schooling or workplace apprenticeships, the pharmaceutical employee typically requires an advanced knowledge of processing, quality control, chemistry and analytics.

In some cases, depending on the business, pharma operators may even need a masters or even a PhD level of education.

This alone widens the skills gap as new employees can’t gain the required education with on-the-job learning; the intervention has to come earlier in the career journey.

The remit of a pharmaceutical operator is, essentially, one job role with multiple disciplines. They must first understand the machine level and have all the tools and knowledge to address maintenance issues and ensure that production can continue while adhering to some of the strictest regulations in industry.

They then need the skills of a scientist who understands the active ingredients and the role they play in the final product. Critically, and uniquely, a pharmaceutical operator must also have the skills of a data analyst. This often-underappreciated requirement is an essential part of being able to apply different data sets to models — be that for machine learning or clinical drug trials.

No matter where in the supply chain the pharmaceutical operator is working, they must possess the skills of these three job roles; and, without new blood entering the workforce, the issue of under-supply will continue to grow. 

Currently, the industry is at a crossroads. On one hand, never before have the skills of pharmaceutical operators been held in such high esteem. Without this incredibly important skillset, the world would never have been able to recover so rapidly from the recent pandemic (producing both viable vaccines and testing kits at a rapid rate).

On the other hand, the sector specialism isn’t promoted heavily to those looking to the next level of education. Often, potential recruits will be pushed to either research roles or the incredibly lucrative data-scientist roles. Although both are important, they don’t keep the wheels of pharmaceutical manufacturing moving, which for a vertical that affects everyone’s life (at some point or another) is a problem.

Addressing the skills gap in the pharmaceutical sector

Digitalisation of skills
To ensure a steady stream of new talent and competent operators, the sector needs to take two very important steps to close the skills gap. First, the position of pharmaceutical operator needs to be promoted to school leavers and university students as the integral job role it is.

Those unaware of what a pharmaceutical operator might do need to be shown that it isn’t about keeping a machine oiled; in fact, the areas most in need of new talent are people with digital expertise. This opens up multiple opportunities for new entries into the workforce — even those that started their education with a computing position in mind.

Those looking to advance their education to the right level must see that this exciting vertical uses the latest technology and, although it has been slow to adopt digital transformation previously, change is afoot.1

The second step to close the skills gap rests firmly on the other side of the divide; it revolves around capturing the invaluable knowledge of the experienced workforce before it is gone forever into retirement. As a large portion of the workforce reaches retirement age, their on-the-job knowledge that has been collected and honed throughout their careers could be lost.

Without that guiding hand to nurture new talent, the skills gap will worsen. Pharmaceutical manufacturers can take the proactive step now to start digitalising that knowledge and capturing those vital skills, so that they are accessible to the next generation.

Pharmaceutical companies can choose the right software that will enable rapid skills development, dramatically reducing the time it takes get frontline workers up to speed with the complex validation protocols present in the sector.

This step needs to be taken sooner rather than later because, the longer it’s left, the harder it will be to secure knowledge and prepare the next generation. 

AVEVA Teamwork enables pharmaceutical manufacturers to capture and share critical knowledge in a digital platform that’s designed to empower their workforce with the digital resources they need to do their jobs effectively at the point of use. Operators can access SOPs, training videos, work instructions, valuable troubleshooting knowledge and collaborate and solve problems/capture best practices across the enterprise.

Although this alone is not enough to solve the skills gap issue within the industry, it offers the fastest way to minimise its impact for pharmaceuticals. The remaining responsibility to encourage young people into STEM and, ultimately, pharmaceutical roles is one that will require industry and educators to work closely together to understand the needs of the future and avoid a skills cliff-edge.



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