Why a more flexible workforce is key to unlocking growth in the pharmaceutical sector

Skills were high on the agenda of Sir John Bell’s eagerly anticipated August 2017 report to the Government from the UK life sciences sector, and rightly so.  The £64 billion pounds a year industry is the third largest in the UK, employing around 235,000 people across more than 5,000 companies.  As such, life sciences contribute approximately 10 percent of the UK’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) every year.

Prior to the publication of the report, newly appointed fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences had told the London Evening Standard that they felt the UK risks becoming a “backwater” for scientific research unless the world’s “brightest and best” are made welcome after Brexit.  Professor Lee Cronin, Regius chair of chemistry at Glasgow university, warned: “Brexit threatens the foundations of UK science.”

It appears Sir John Bell has taken heed of these warnings, by addressing the movement of skilled people as a major priority in the skills section of his report.  He recommends that a migration system should be introduced which would allow the recruitment and retention of highly skilled workers from the EU and beyond, and that “does not impede intra-company transfers.”

It is yet to be guaranteed, but such ongoing cooperation between the UK and EU on regulating life sciences would be sensible; the economic value of the pharmaceutical industry in the EU has increased from €125 billion to €225 billion over the past fifteen years while employment in the sector has also grown dramatically during this period from 535,000 to 725,000.  Allowing a continuous flow of talent into the UK, as well as the opportunity for British experts to retain their access to EU research funding, would ensure the UK can continue to be an integral part of the EU’s success in life sciences, and vice versa.

While it is yet to be seen exactly how the politics of Brexit may or may not affect those working in the pharmaceutical sector, it is apparent that life sciences will be a major priority for the government, which has already outlined the sector as one of five fundamental pillars for its UK industrial strategy, along with low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, the creative sector and nuclear industry.

Future jobs growth in UK life sciences is expected to be driven by the expansion of specialist fields such as gene therapy, as well as developing the industry’s existing strengths in research and development, manufacturing and supply, and bringing untapped therapies and medicines to the market.  These areas are supported by a strong backbone of life sciences infrastructure across the country, which includes hubs such as the London-Stansted-Cambridge Corridor, Alderley Park in Cheshire, and support mechanisms and institutes such as One Nucleus in Cambridge, Life Sciences Hub Wales and Liverpool Life Sciences UTC.
There are major ambitions too, such as Sir John Bell’s proposal to create the Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP) which would undertake large research infrastructure projects and ‘moonshot programmes’, impressively aiming to create two to three entirely new industries within the field over the next decade.  Then there are high profile studies such as the Innovate UK and Nanaco partnership project, which is researching the use of quantum dot nanoparticles in cancer imaging, and the HIV project led by Imperial College London, which involves 22 EU institutions.

These opportunities are certainly exciting but for the businesses working on such projects the reality is that they also face an unprecedented set of challenges and unknowns over the coming years and decades.  Brexit notwithstanding, the issue of automation and disruptive technologies is set to be front and centre over the coming years and decades.  It is only a matter of time before we start seeing the full effects of this on the jobs market as robotics, nanotechnologies and artificial intelligence become more advanced.

In order to meet the opportunities of increasing investment and ambitions around this sector amidst medium-term political uncertainties and longer-term unknowns such as automation, businesses working in life sciences will need to create a much more flexible workforce to remain robust.

Flexibility is key

Rather than employing permanent staff and having to train them up and commit to employee costs as a business goes through peaks and troughs, building a team of trusted contractors is becoming a favourable way to approach growth in such uncertain periods.

Using contractors means businesses are much more likely to find ‘plug and play’ candidates that will add value to the business instantly and help pharma companies to react quickly to tackle new projects and embrace new opportunities. It can also help related sectors to quickly upskill for temporary projects in life sciences. For example, an engineering consultancy was recently implementing a number of new pharmaceutical manufacturing lines and was required to validate them.  However, they did not have the necessary internal expertise, so they worked with us  to place 20 validation engineers within three months, ensuring their project remained on schedule.

To create such a flexible workforce and boost the national life sciences sector, contractual clauses can be inserted such as mobility and movement to allow staff to move to another location or annualised hours whereby if a business has major peaks and troughs throughout the year, it might look at averaging out staff hours across the year for some or all employees. Those employees would then work reduced hours during quiet times, and increased hours during peaks. Implementing such an arrangement can be somewhat complex and must comply with the Working Time Regulations.

If the UK life sciences strategy is to evolve and continue underpinning the UK economy, it is crucial for the pharmaceutical industry to remember that as they build their workforce for the future, flexibility should be at the heart of everything they do.

James Dawson is managing consultant at NES Global Talent