Tackling the skilled labor shortage in biopharma manufacturing

Skilled labor shortage biopharma manufacturing

By Brandy Bullen, founder & CEO of Sequoia Consulting Group

The biopharma manufacturing sector stands at a critical juncture as it grapples with an increasingly pronounced skilled labor shortage. In an era marked by rapid advancements in biotechnology and the growing demand for innovative therapies, the industry finds itself facing a pressing challenge – the scarcity of qualified professionals proficient in the intricate processes and specialized techniques essential for biopharma production. 

The industry has been a driving force behind life-changing scientific and technological breakthroughs, benefiting countless patients and families from a point of care and quality of life perspective, and investors with market capitalization and promise of dedicating dollars to ongoing research. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved nearly 400 novel drugs in the 2010s alone, showcasing the industry’s dynamic nature. Additionally, the swift development of COVID-19 vaccines served as a highly publicized testament to its capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. boasts over 2500 brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturing businesses, with the number steadily increasing at an average rate of 6.2% annually from 2018 to 2023. The industry is on the brink of further groundbreaking advancements in drug discovery, driven by a staggering investment of $230 billion in pharma R&D in 2021, with a growth rate of 7% each year since 2015. As a result, the pipeline of products in various developmental stages has expanded like never before, and simultaneous technological advances are generating robust, deep, and precise insights.

In addition, the pandemic played a pivotal role in expediting the market arrival of several nanomedicines, faster than would have been possible within traditional timeframes. These products stand out for their scalability and reproducibility of batches, leading to advancements in continuous production processes. Integrating all operations into a single manufacturing facility has boosted efficiency, reduced costs, and ensured safer drugs. Although only a few such facilities are currently up and running, this model is rapidly becoming the new norm.

Hiring challenges have evolved, too

As a result of the dynamic evolution of the industry landscape and the manner in which employee work environments have changed and created multiple methods of engagement, finding, recruiting and hiring staff has presented new challenges. In the past, pharmaceutical companies focused more on research and innovation partnerships rather than recruiting pipelines, but now, staffing has become a primary concern across industries.

With almost 80 million baby boomers retiring in the next 30 years, and only around 40 million new workers entering the job market during that same period, there will be a significant talent shortage. In the biopharma sector alone, there are over 800,000 employees, yet more than 60,000 job vacancies indicate a labor shortage of approximately 8%. Projections show that job opportunities in the life, physical, and social sciences sectors will grow by 7% by 2028; faster than in any other. 

Not only are more people needed, but they must also possess new and higher-level skill sets. They need to possess greater flexibility with depth and breadth of capability to wear many hats in leaner environments.

One area where expertise is crucial is in good manufacturing practices (GMP). GMP, among many other aspects, involves testing to avoid destroying the entire batch and ensuring it can be made available to patients. While this approach improves production efficiency and supply, it necessitates the involvement of experts who can ensure verifiable quality throughout the design and manufacturing process. 

Another need for very specific expertise is the growing role of robotics in pharmaceutical production, especially in aseptic manufacturing. An elevated level of automation expertise and process knowledge is involved with this emerging technology and requires specialized knowledge, often rooted in a combination of engineering and clinical training. This progress underscores the importance of cultivating a more holistic mindset that unites all stakeholders and technical subject matter experts into a cohesive team with a shared objective. By smoothly combining talents and experience, this collaborative effort guarantees the highest standards of product quality and safety. 

New pipelines and approaches to address the skilled labor shortage in biopharma

Expanding needs have expanded mindsets. Companies like Eli Lilly are embracing this evolving landscape by expanding their recruitment beyond traditional pharmaceutical hubs in major cities; instead, they are establishing a talent hub in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Currently known for banking and commercial enterprises, the state is experiencing significant population growth. Additionally, its community college system offers targeted training for specific employers and a relatively untapped source of talent consisting of nearly 20,000 military personnel exiting active-duty service in the area and, through Lilly’s efforts, reentering civilian life there, too. 

Drug development companies would be wise to adapt to these new realities by reorienting retention efforts through onboarding and professional development opportunities. Whether it occurs during the first days of employment or when roles or departments change, a thoughtful onboarding process can drive employee commitment. 

A genuine interest in an employee’s future with the organization is also meaningful and motivating. Opportunities that include higher levels of responsibility, or training or accreditation in other, related areas, can help address existing staffing challenges by expanding areas of expertise among the existing workforce. Technology is making progress in this area, too, through systems that automate onboarding and training that is interactive and highly personalized. 

New realities for employers

The large-scale societal changes in where, why, and how people work have not bypassed the pharmaceutical industry. The “great resignation” is coming to an end and, according to some, is being replaced by the “great stay.” On its face that is good news, but nevertheless challenges remain. While people are more inclined to stay at a job, there are still not enough people to fill existing positions. 

To address the skilled labor shortage, all industries must refine and rethink their recruiting and retention practices, especially biopharma. Its need for specialized professionals was already high, and rapidly developing expectations, demands, and technologies are driving it even higher. Leaders must be open to accessing expertise from outside of their organizations to partner in creating stable, adaptable, and productive work forces to stay competitive in what promises to be an ever evolving, and even tumultuous, healthcare and pharmaceutical landscape.

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