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Solving the skills shortage conundrum – paving the way forward

Finding and securing talent is critical for the growth of the life sciences sector, this is widely accepted. The ever-present questions are how to keep up with the demand and with whom the responsibility rests to solve the skills supply challenge.

The pressure is real for every segment of the life science ecosystem here in the Nordics. In Sweden the government has adopted as a part of their national life sciences strategy, a priority to address skills development and talent attraction to ensure the country succeeds as a leading life sciences nation. The case is the same in Denmark, where earlier this year the government presented their new life science strategy, including a strengthened focus on skills development.

When demand is higher than supply

In this sector, as well as in all sectors going through the big digital transformation, a lot of the skills supply for the near future has to do with data, data analytics and data management, explains Jenni Nordborg, National Coordinator for Life Sciences Sweden. “In addition, there are specific needs for competences associated with production and process development of biotechs. Furthermore, when it comes to healthcare, talents working on radiotherapy are too few, we need a stronger knowledge base in this area,” Nordborg says.

“In Denmark alone, we anticipate a need for another 30,000 employees by 2030 if we are to sustain the current growth and meet the expected extra demand.”

As documented in the Greater Copenhagen Life Science Initiative analysis published in June, the life science industry in Medicon Valley employs about 50,000 people. “In Denmark alone, we anticipate a need for another 30,000 employees by 2030 if we are to sustain the current growth and meet the expected extra demand,” says Anette Steenberg, new CEO for Medicon Valley Alliance.

 

Jenni Nordborg and Anette Steenberg

Jenni Nordborg, the Swedish government’s Coordinator for Life Sciences, and Anette Steenberg, new CEO of Medicon Valley Alliance

 

In an analysis in 2020 by Øresundsinstituttet as part of the Interreg project Greater Copenhagen Life Science Analysis Initiative a poll of life sciences companies in Skåne revealed that expertise related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs along with experience in regulatory affairs, quality assurance and in sales and marketing also pose a recruitment challenge in the region.

“We see a shortage within e.g. QA, QP, regulatory affairs and validation. Medical doctors with industry interest are also in scarce supply, and we are expecting to see an increased demand in cross-competences, for example bioinformaticians and AI-driven automation.”

Hanna Sandvall, Director of Life Sciences and Engineering at the global consulting firm Randstad further confirms this. “We see a shortage within e.g. QA, QP, regulatory affairs and validation. Medical doctors with industry interest are also in scarce supply, and we are expecting to see an increased demand in cross-competences, for example bioinformaticians and AI-driven automation,” she says.

Steenberg is keen to highlight that within in the microbiome, where she and her colleagues have a specific EU Signature project with Copenhagen Capacity and Invest in Skåne, there is a large demand for technical competences like bioinformatics, biostatisticians, chemical and process engineers, etc. “Furthermore, in Denmark there is a lack of digital expertise to support the development of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and a need for more manpower to support for instance regulatory affairs, pharmacovigilance and quality assurance,” she adds.

Torkel Gren, Member of SwedenBIO’s board and Senior Director Technology Officer & Strategic Investments at Recipharm along with Janet Hoogstraate, Chair of SwedenBIO’s working group on Manufacturing and Process Development and Managing Director Valneva Sweden echo similar findings in Sweden. They both maintain that regulatory affairs and quality assurance are two areas where demand is higher than supply.

 

Torkel Gren and Hanna Sandvall

Torkel Gren, Senior Director Technology Officer and Strategic Investments, Recipharm, and Hanna Sandvall, Director of Life Sciences and Engineering, Randstad

 

“From a manufacturing company’s perspective, it is also difficult to find technicians for sterile work and other skilled operators. Some of the shortages are quite specific, such as formulation scientist, but the skills shortages provide a challenge to Swedish life science companies’ expansion across the industry at all levels,” they state.

“If we could have our wish list answered we would like to see more people studying to become engineers or chemists with an additional qualification in analytical or digital areas, and for the university system to include more peptide chemistry in their training programs.”

Jacob Nilsson, Global HR Director at PolyPeptide describes that there is a need for more process knowledge. “Meaning chemists or engineers with experience in processes and automation. Recruiting chemists is relatively straight forward, but to find people who know automation and manufacturing execution systems – this presents a bigger challenge. In other parts of the life science sector, there is also focus on accelerating the development of pharmaceutical substances with more digital automation; as a result, numerous companies are seeking the same competences within automation, and the competition has stiffened. If we could have our wish list answered we would like to see more people studying to become engineers or chemists with an additional qualification in analytical or digital areas, and for the university system to include more peptide chemistry in their training programs,” says Nilsson.

If we turn to specialist recruiting and consulting companies operating in the industry many will share stories of the strain companies are facing both in searching for consultants and permanent hires.

“It’s not uncommon for companies to approach us for support after they have been looking for a particular skill set for six months without any luck,” explains Helena Marteus, Head of Recruitment Nordics at life science consulting group PharmaRelations. “Our role is to guide and advise on the best way forward to find the solution. Whilst some remain set in their ways, many are realizing the need to be more open to considering new ways of thinking about what essential skills a person needs to perform in the position.”

 

Helena Marteus, Head of Recruitment Nordics, PharmaRelations (Photo: Peter Joensson), and Jacob Nilsson, Global HR Director, PolyPeptide

Where do we find the solution?

One might assume there is an easy answer – upon closer inspection it seems there are a myriad of solutions. We need to create more relevant programs at our universities says one respondent, companies need to change how they look at their wish list of skills, and we need better migration policies to attract international talents says another.

“We cannot fix the skills shortage in silos, industry, academia, policy makers and healthcare must communicate and collaborate in a better way.”

One message remains constant from all stakeholders – we cannot fix the skills shortage in silos, industry, academia, policy makers and healthcare must communicate and collaborate in a better way.

The education system

If we look at one piece of the puzzle, the education system, with the pace of change in the industry occurring at a staggering rate, one might wonder how realistic it is for academic institutions to update their programs at a pace to match and keep up with the skills required. According to Jenni Nordborg, universities in Sweden are on their toes to meet the need for new skills but it takes a very long time. “Maybe they know what type of knowledge is needed however the question is whether the knowledge is workable for industry – and here there is a need for a joint effort and dialogue between academia, industry, and healthcare,” Nordborg says.

Magnus Björsne, CEO of AstraZeneca BioVentureHub remarks that there are certainly some hot areas where the universities have not caught up. “If we take the skill data stewardship, today there is one education in the UK, a few in the US and none in the rest of Europe. There is a need to follow everything that accompanies digitalization but also when it comes to all new developments in therapies. Take for example cell and gene therapy, ATMP or the microbiome – these are areas where the education is lagging,” he says and highlights that this is not necessarily unique to the Nordic environment, although some countries seem ‘more alert’ than others.

“We see a rapid and positive growth in Norwegian life science industries, but this has also led to an increased demand for competence that the educational institutions haven’t been able to meet.”

Hanne Mette Dyrlie Kristensen, CEO at the Life Science Cluster in Norway, explains that the skills most highly in demand in Norway are those that are related to digitalization, precision medicine and development and production. Attracting international talent will also be important. “We see a rapid and positive growth in Norwegian life science industries, but this has also led to an increased demand for competence that the educational institutions haven’t been able to meet,” Kristensen says.

At the same time, she is of the impression that the academic institutions are, more than ever, aware of their crucial role in meeting the need for competence in the industry.

 

Hanne Mette Dyrlie Kristensen, CEO, the Life Science Cluster in Norway, and Magnus Björsne, CEO, AstraZeneca BioVentureHub (Photo: Daniel Forssberg)

 

“Academia is willing to address the skills shortage in Norway through improved interaction and communication with the industry to create more industry-relevant courses. As a cluster we can play an important role in bringing together the right players, but we would also like to see the new government give extra incentives for the universities to prepare students better for a transition to industry, similar to what we see in the other Nordic countries,” says Kristensen.

“If one looks at the roles and responsibilities typically found in pharma and biotechs, academia is maybe a good place to educate some of the critical roles needed to efficiently run a pharma or biotech operation, but most functions need to be taught working in the industry itself, or in the various public bodies regulating the industries.”

Also in Norway, Jørund Sollid, Chief Business Officer at Lytix Biopharma, maintains that the change and transformation within pharma and biotechs is accelerating, meaning that the slow-to-change academic education system is lagging further and further behind. “If one looks at the roles and responsibilities typically found in pharma and biotechs, academia is maybe a good place to educate some of the critical roles needed to efficiently run a pharma or biotech operation, but most functions need to be taught working in the industry itself, or in the various public bodies regulating the industries,” he says.

According to Anni Siltanen, Chief Advisor- Skills & Competence at the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland, the government is currently working on a STEM strategy, which the industry has actively pushed for in  recent years. Siltanen believes that whilst many companies in Finland are active in promoting STEM careers, some even using Instagram and Tiktok to target young people, marketing campaigns alone do not provide the answer.

“The skills shortages issue cannot be handled in silos, it is a mutual effort between the political decision makers, educational institutions and companies,” she says.

 

Jørund Sollid, Chief Business Officer, Lytix Biopharma, and Anni Siltanen, Chief Advisor Skills & Competence, the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland

Changing the mindset of our industry

One only needs attend a career fair at one of the many esteemed university programs to understand that there is a need for an improved dialogue between industry and the education system. As Helena Marteus explains: “We meet with students every year, and the impression we have is the same year after year, there are many incredibly talented and motivated individuals who have a desire to join the industry but cannot get their foot in the door and are incredibly frustrated. There must be a better way to utilize the skills we have right in front of us.”

“There must be a better way to utilize the skills we have right in front of us.”

PharmaRelations recently ran a simple survey of 45 life science companies operating in the Nordics where 75% of the respondents indicated that they did not believe there is effective collaboration with the education sector to ensure long-term skills supply in their specific region (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden).

“We start to see more and more examples of the number of educational programs being created outside of the university system,” says Marteus. “Even here at PharmaRelations in the Nordics we have developed a structure particularly within the regulatory services arm of our company where juniors are paired with senior consultants to increase their capacity to work with our clients. In an ideal world we would like to see more companies giving juniors opportunities, however, we are also realistic about the fact that not all companies have the capacity or resources to upskill or train a junior. Therefore, by paring a junior with an experienced senior consultant in house at PharmaRelations, we help to absorb the burden of training specific skills. This exchange of knowledge is wonderful to see both for the junior learning new skills and the senior imparting valuable experience.”

“Furthermore, to stimulate continuous development opportunities for employees, SwedenBIO brings expertise from the various member companies together to exchange experience and best practice, an example of one of these groups is the Validation skill group.”

A perfect way of bridging the gap is the education program for pharmaceutical technician (läkemedelstekniker) through the Frans Schartau Business Institute. This was created in response to the increased demand in pharmaceutical manufacturing in Sweden. Janet Hoogstraate explains that the program was set up and is maintained in close collaboration with SwedenBIO’s member companies to ensure alignment with the industry needs and to provide the opportunity for traineeships. “Furthermore, to stimulate continuous development opportunities for employees, SwedenBIO brings expertise from the various member companies together to exchange experience and best practice, an example of one of these groups is the Validation skill group,” she says.

Björn Arvidsson, Managing Director of STUNS Life Science explains that whilst it is not the task of universities to ensure students secure meaningful employment after graduation, we can do more to improve the connections between the students and the companies and their understanding of one another. STUNS Life Science addresses this by initiating closer relations to academia, especially in the engineering programs.

 

Björn Arvidsson, Managing Director, STUNS (Photo: Jeanette Hägglund), and Janet Hoogstraate, Managing Director, Valneva Sweden (Photo: Jan Landefeldt)

 

“Inspired by our colleagues at STUNS Energy, a new concept is being created to get students to work more closely with the life sciences companies during their education. We are trying to broaden the spectrum of companies participating in practical placements, but also challenge the types of projects the students are doing at the companies,” says Arvidsson.

“By increasing the number of companies offering practical placements, and ensuring students are taking on more challenging projects at these companies the companies are beginning to see firsthand that the students are very competent and motivated to learn.”

Arvidsson maintains that as a system, even if they have two very strong universities in Uppsala and a lot of students coming from the traditional life science institutions, most companies want to employ senior staff, people who already have the skills and experience. “What we are trying to do is to make sure the companies better understand the competence of people coming from the programs, because they are very skilled. By increasing the number of companies offering practical placements, and ensuring students are taking on more challenging projects at these companies the companies are beginning to see firsthand that the students are very competent and motivated to learn,” he says.

From Arvidsson’s perspective, even an already experienced person needs time to adjust and learn when a business expands and develops in new areas. A newly graduated person will probably take a bit longer than a more experienced person, but if a company has the capacity to hire and train a talent this may even be beneficial in terms of loyalty and retention.

Hanna Sandvall suggests that too many companies are searching for senior competence today and are missing the emerging talents that, granted, need more training, but are essential for securing the future talents in the sector. “We need to invest more time to connect with academic institutions to inspire young talent and make the bright life science future more tangible,” she says.

If we look to the north of Sweden, Jennie Ekbeck, CEO at Umeå Biotech Incubator has worked tirelessly to build better connections between companies and academia as one method of solving the skills supply problems in Umeå. For Ekbeck much of the journey to solve skills shortage is about changing the mindset of the industry, and she is certainly not afraid to hold companies accountable in playing their part in this.

“We challenge them to consider – what is the very basic knowledge needed for the position and look more at the drive and motivation to achieve the same outcome.”

“In Umeå we could see that companies were stealing from each other far too much, so we needed to confront the issue. It is not something that can be achieved overnight, however slowly but surely companies in the region are beginning to understand that they have much more to gain by looking more at what is needed to move someone from junior to senior rather than fixating on the need to hire only senior competence. We challenge them to consider – what is the very basic knowledge needed for the position and look more at the drive and motivation to achieve the same outcome,” she says.

 

Jennie Ekbeck

Jennie Ekbeck, CEO, Umeå Biotech Incubator. Photo: Malin Grönborg

 

A hire for attitude and train for skills philosophy is not new. Many high impact organizations have long adopted this hiring model whereby character counts for more than credentials. For SMEs, however this strategy can be costly, and many simply don’t have the luxury of available resources to train and upskill juniors. Ekbeck suggests that a smart way to build competence can be for non-competing companies to run trainee programs together.

“This is especially important given the competence engines we once had in Sweden no longer exist. This is precisely what has occurred with the three In Vitro Diagnostics (IVD) companies operating in Umeå – they aggregate each other’s competence and have a pay it forward mentality,” Ekbeck says.

Public-private partnerships

Globally we see a trend of life science companies increasingly making public-private partnerships (PPPs) a bigger focus of their business strategies. Although these come with their challenges, if executed in the right way, they provide the perfect example of an innovative and high-value collaboration model which is so important in building a sustainable health ecosystem. Denmark has a long tradition of PPPs. Already in the 1930s and 40s the Danish public healthcare system and private organizations realized that they could benefit from closer cooperation, the then Nordic Insulin Laboratory (today Novo Nordisk) was a pioneer in this space, even if the cooperation between public authorities and industry was less formal at the time.

Jenni Nordborg believes that PPPs are a very important way of working to grow new talent and skills for the life science sector and something she hopes we will see more of in the coming years. She refers to the Testa Center, a bioprocess pilot-scale facility in Uppsala, a collaboration between Vinnova and Cytiva to improve the future of biological medicines.

“It is a perfect example of Sweden looking for ways to make use of existing competence within both public and private sectors and academia,” she says.

“We are seeing more and more life science companies going digital and digital companies going life science, and there is often a lack of complementary skills and know-how.”

AstraZeneca BioVentureHub is perhaps one of the most exciting innovation models of PPP seen in the Nordics to date. “Historically if you asked someone about pharma innovation the answer you would get was a new medicine, something that was done in a lab or a clinic and that is not what we are facing today. We see that the future will be about combining medicine with smart intelligence, with sensors and other ICT technologies. The whole definition of innovation is changing. Because of this we are seeing more and more life science companies going digital and digital companies going life science, and there is often a lack of complementary skills and know-how,” says Magnus Björsne.

“The BioVenture Hub aims to fertilize cross-sector convergence as a driver for innovation and much of what we are trying to achieve therefore circles back to shortage of skills and knowledge. We are not experts in the digital space, that is not our heritage, but by inviting non-competing scale up companies to drive their business from inside AstraZeneca this facilitates acceleration in knowledge, culture, and innovation,” says Björsne.

Attraction of international talent

Another cornerstone to all skills shortage discussions is the question of how we are working with government policy that supports attraction and flow of international talent to the Nordics – one of the more contentious and debated subjects. In a discussion paper produced by McKinsey in 2020, where the focus was the future of work in Europe, they estimated that in Europe “STEM-related occupations could grow by more than 20 percent in the coming decade, with STEM skills already in short supply.”

They cited the importance of labor mobility as one solution to the shortage of skills. In the study they estimated that less than 60 percent of expected job growth can be filled by existing residents in what they term “superstar hubs” of which Sweden, Denmark and Finland are an example.

How do the Nordics fare?

Medicon Valley Alliance works closely and supports regional agencies such as Copenhagen Capacity and Invest in Skåne that are working globally with attracting talent. One project they have set up with Invest in Skåne is an EU Interreg Signature project to attract talent within the microbiome fields. “The purpose of the project is to actively attract international talent within this field, which we have identified as a current and future stronghold in Medicon Valley,” says Anette Steenberg. She maintains that besides making an effort in attracting foreign talent, countries and companies need to make it easy for foreign talent, whether that be visa, setting up a bank account, finding a house, school for kids, work permits for spouses and generally welcoming them into our homes and societies.

Helena Strigård, Director General of SwedenBIO agrees that whilst it is a shared responsibility between public and private sector to solve the skills shortages problem, the policies surrounding for instance the possibility for skilled workers of non-Swedish nationality to work, and to be attracted to work, in Sweden is something which lies in the hands of the government.

“A different approach is needed toward how to build Swedish life sciences strongly upon a global skills base. Lots of aspects come into play here, from how the tax system works to migration policies.”

Unfortunately, not enough is being done to address the importance of securing Sweden’s attractiveness to international experts, be it key competences in manufacturing or board members, Strigård continues. “A different approach is needed toward how to build Swedish life sciences strongly upon a global skills base. Lots of aspects come into play here, from how the tax system works to migration policies.”

 

Helena Strigård

Helena Strigård, Director General, SwedenBIO

 

Sweden’s national life science strategy highlights that measures are needed both to effectively recruit internationally and to improve conditions nationally to produce the skills in demand. Therefore, one might wonder if a proposed new criterion for obtaining permanent residency in Sweden is the best move to encourage international mobility of talent. Ole Petter Ottersen, President at Karolinska Institutet wrote in his blogpost earlier this year that this proposal does not seem very well thought-through.

“Our goal must be to make it easier, not harder, so that talent can contribute their knowledge and innovative power to Swedish society.”

“It’s not a successful strategy to in effect block an influx of international talent, and it stands in stark contrast to the express goal of the recent research bill – that Sweden is to be one of the world’s leading research and innovation countries and an outstanding knowledge nation. Sweden is disadvantaged when it comes to international recruitments. We are geographically remote, with a climate that is not to everyone’s liking, and with a language spoken by few. Our goal must be to make it easier, not harder, so that talent can contribute their knowledge and innovative power to Swedish society,” writes Ottersen.

Nonetheless, an OECD report produced in 2019 measuring Indicators of Talent Attractiveness scores across seven dimensions including quality of opportunities, inclusiveness and how difficult it is for prospective migrants with required skills to obtain a residence permit, highlights Sweden, Norway and Finland as some of the most attractive OECD countries for talents, but that all countries can improve their attractiveness in the global competition for talent.

Everybody needs to be engaged

According to Helena Strigård, in the long-term perspective, the skills shortages cannot be eased without measures from decision makers in the public field.

“Here and now, I do believe the industry itself should work together as much as it can to address the shortage. A prominent example of how this could be done is demonstrated by Umeå, home of a rapidly growing life science cluster, where companies collaborate to put demands on local policy makers on how to make the region more attractive as a place to live and work but also to share expertise in an intelligent way. This is something that we at SwedenBIO try to encourage through our platforms as well. Sharing is caring was coined in our community long ago!” she says.

“Here and now, I do believe the industry itself should work together as much as it can to address the shortage.”

The overwhelming message from each opinion group is that we must continue to build on a model of collaboration and shared learning, we must be open to change and realize that the way we addressed skills shortages and talent supply in the past does not necessarily have relevance in today’s setting. We must challenge our assumptions regarding what is needed. To do that we need to talk with each other much more than we do today.

As Magnus Björsne aptly concludes: “The key message is that we all have to do a bit more. It is not on one party, everybody needs to be engaged, we all need to get together in the boat otherwise we will lose our competitive power, it’s as simple as that.”

Featured illustration: iStock

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