Having reached the Premier League, the UK diagnostics industry must now avoid relegation


Even before the COVID pandemic struck, there were signs of significant growth in the UK in vitro diagnostics industry, reports Ivor Campbell, Managing Director of Stirlingshire-based Snedden Campbell, a search company for the medical technology industry

2019, the last year for which figures are available, saw its market increase by 3.1%, compared with a rise of just 0.3% in France and a fall of 0.4% in Germany, its nearest competitors. A significant component was instruments and consumables, although there was particularly strong growth in infectious disease testing revenues.

At the time, a major concern was Brexit and its likely impact on supply chains and market access, and we will only know if those were borne out when the European IVD market statistics for 2020 are published later this year.

The response of the UK industry to the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak — with existing companies and start-ups alike stepping up to the plate with supply of hardware and development of new technology — promises to make for positive reading.

But as the darkness of COVID lifts, there is a significant issue that needs addressing if this is to prove other than a false dawn for the previously unheralded sector — recruitment. Whether it can attract and retain the level of talent needed and in sufficient numbers to become a major part of the UK MedTech industry remains to be seen and will depend on how companies respond.

The reality is that, until now, many diagnostics companies have been meeting their staffing challenges on a wing and a prayer.

Scientists, engineers, and statisticians who have only recently completed postgraduate degrees are often recruited for complex roles by employers who really need people with 10–15 years plus of industry experience. There is already some evidence of some firms who require the services of statisticians — when practical, on-the-job experience is vitally important — having to compromise and employ people who have only recently completed their PhD theses.

An increasing number of UK companies are attending roadshows in China and Singapore to hire people from South Asia because they can’t find those with comparable skills and experience in the UK or Europe. We have reached a stage where, for many med-tech companies, it’s the most cost-effective recruitment policy.

The ability of our universities to produce the level and quantity of skilled graduates required by the diagnostics industry is compromised by their lack of capacity. Those graduates who do emerge with good degrees in bio and biomechanical science degrees are more often attracted to jobs in pharma and biopharma because of the higher salaries on offer.

And yet, too many companies still see recruitment as a reactive function. The only time they think about their skills complement and talent pool is when someone vital to their operation hands in their notice. They might have endless meetings about marketing and intellectual property protection but, when it comes to recruitment, there is no coherent strategy in place.

As a result, the diagnostics industry faces the same dilemma experienced by the wider UK economy on several occasions last year when, for example, it was discovered there was a potentially catastrophic shortage of HGV drivers, fruit and vegetable pickers and suppliers of CO2, which affects the operation of everything from pubs to hospitals.

By the time affected industries realised there was a problem, it was too late and the kind of strategy planning and implementation needed to address it can take months or even years. Companies need to think longer-term about their staffing needs as well as about the cost of hiring, retention and skilling-up. If they can’t access the skills they need — and will need in the future — on the open market then the only other option is to hire recent graduates and to offer the level of training necessary to meet their needs.

They also need to have in place an effective retention strategy to prevent highly specialised staff, whom they have spent time and money to train, being poached by their competitors. Retention has to be more than installing a pool table in the office and giving workers case of beer at the weekend.

Employers need to give more thought to how they can engender a culture of loyalty in their firms, to ensure their staff recognise the effort they have gone to, to find and train them, turning them from raw trainees, into well-paid and marketable professionals.

Business owners will often spend hours in the company of corporate lawyers and chartered accountants, perfecting and finalising everything from their tax efficiency, legal compliance and international trade strategies, but those same conversations are not being had about how to get hold of the people they need to make their businesses function and grow.

Rather than making assumptions about the level and quantity of talent available, any diagnostics start-up with ambition needs to have a roadmap in place, charting how it intends to transfer from proof-of-concept to full-scale production, and who will be on the team to ensure those mechanisms work smoothly.

For the industry to continue growing, companies need to think more like Premier League football clubs, which have academies to develop players for the future.

The richest clubs can afford to buy-in expensive talent to help them keep winning matches and to stay in the highest and most lucrative divisions.

The rest rely on identifying young talent, nurturing, and developing it to help them remain competitive, with the option of selling some players on at profit. All professional football clubs, no matter their size, have talent scouts to advise the manager and his staff about which players to recruit and invest in.

Any manager worth their salt will be constantly assessing how good the current squad is, where there are weaknesses and where their team is likely to finish in the league with the players available to them at any given time. The management team will have ongoing conversations about who they need to bring in to achieve specific objectives for this season and the next, about which competitions they can afford to take seriously and which they can’t.

Football agents are paid millions of pounds because they can persuade the best players to sign for particular clubs. They also have a rapport with their clients and are able to tell, through research and instinct, what players are likely to fit well into what teams.

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Until the UK diagnostics industry takes recruitment, leadership, and teamwork more seriously and until companies have robust and long-term strategies in place to attract, develop and retain talent, they will struggle to compete for the most prestigious silverware.