On the heels of a pandemic that broke the seams and popped the buttons off of biopharma’s manufacturing capacity, supply chains, and talent pool, the biopharma manufacturing equipment and solutions supplier (and Business of Biotech sponsor) Cytiva began measuring the industry’s “resilience.” That’s a tricky thing to define, much less measure, but Cytiva’s “Biopharma Resilience Index” focuses on five pillars, or capabilities, within biopharma organizations: supply chain, manufacturing agility, talent pool, R&D ecosystem, and government policy/regulation.
The research, gleaned from interviews of 1,250 biopharma and pharma executives in 22 countries, tells us that Cytiva’s idea of “resilience” is down in 3 of those 5 categories since the study began in 2021. Specifically, respondents rated their talent pool, R&D, and government policy/regulation capabilities lower this year than they did in 2021.
This column will focus on the talent pool crunch. In 2021, Resilience Index survey participants rated the talent pool a 6.27 out of ten. This year, that figure fell to 5.6. Nearly a quarter of biopharma executives said it’s a substantial challenge to find and retain pharma manufacturing talent.
Disruption Rattles Biomanufacturing Workforce
NIIMBL (National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biologics) Workforce Director John Balchunas says the biopharma talent shortage is a crisis.
Before the pandemic, he says, the consensus was that the inadequate talent pool in biopharma would hit crisis level in 5 to 10 years. “Then the pandemic hit, and it has become that crisis. The pandemic created a perfect storm where people were given a lot more choice in terms of the work they’re doing,” says Balchunas. When virtual work took off, he watched people, particularly low and mid-level production workers, leave the industry at an unprecedented rate to join wholly different industries that offered more flexible work. “Biopharma manufacturing jobs don’t offer that kind of flexibility. Companies need to figure out how to make those jobs attractive for workers who could be earning as much, if not more, working remote in another industry,” he says.
Revisiting Early Momentum In Biopharma Workforce Development
That’s a much different challenge than the one Balchunas worked to address back in 2003, when he was Workforce Development Director at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Back then, his mantle was the matrimony of industry and academia. “There was so little parity between industry and academia, they simply didn’t talk. Academics didn’t know what needed to be taught from an applied standpoint.” In retrospect, Balchunas says that was an easier problem to fix than the one we face today. “That was a matter of forging new partnerships between biopharma companies and academics to address industry’s needs from a training perspective.” Simply put, he helped academia answer questions about what technicians, chemical engineers, process development scientists, etc. need to know about GMP upstream and downstream unit operations.
Accurately answering those questions for academia required industry collaboration, something Balchunas says was considerably more doable then than it would be now. “North Carolina was somewhat unique in those days, in that we had a lot of biomanufacturing, but there wasn’t a lot of true competition. Companies would actually come to the table, break down those barriers, and agree that 90% of what they were doing was not proprietary.” From that clarifying collaboration, industry-academia partnerships were formed to identify and address gaps and trends in training requirements. Those relationships have only expanded, albeit in an increasingly splintered way, as biopharma companies proliferate, diversify—and as a result of increased competition—latch on to the perception that their development and manufacturing IP is, in fact, proprietary.
Now, It’s A Numbers Game
Balchunas says now that most big research universities (and community college with biotech-focused programs) are actively engaged with the biopharma manufacturing industry and aware of its technical needs, NIIMBL’s workforce development initiative has shifted gears. Now, he says, it’s a numbers game. “The resounding message from our biopharma constituents today is that they just need more people,” he says.
Solving that problem will require convincing more young people that biopharma is a career possibility for them. That means creating earlier, and broader, outreach to the next generation of biopharma employees – influencing and convincing younger students, and those outside the hallowed halls of post-graduate scientific academia—that there’s a place for them in biotech. Secondary schools, vocational, and community colleges also, in at least one sense, have a bigger appetite for collaboration. “The university community is much more protective, from an IP perspective, of what they do in terms of their curricula,” says Balchunas. That challenge is exacerbated regionally. “North Carolina is very strong in biotech industry, infrastructure, and education, and there are people in North Carolina who view that as a competitive advantage,” he says. “They want to hold on to that. They don’t want to let that out of the state.” The same can be said of the Boston, Philadelphia, and Silicon Valley regions.
Expanding basic biotech industry education into a broader geography of undergraduate, community college, vocational, and even high school settings, where industry and its propensity toward proprietary has yet to sink its claws into academia, would theoretically broaden the labor pool for line-level employees. “This poses a neat opportunity challenge for NIIMBL,” says Balchunas. “What is the pre-competitive space, where, from a training perspective, different regions can come together and work on something?”
Biopharma’s Most Acute Workforce Development Need
Balchunas says the industry’s infatuation with the bachelor’s/master’s/Ph.D. “gold standard” of its labor force is self-limiting. “Over the last 20 years, our educational system has developed a lot of really interesting alternative pathways, and those have exploded within the last 5 years,” he says, pointing to apprenticeship programs, badging programs, and micro credentials in addition to two-year community college degrees. “There are all these pathways into the industry for skilled workers, and they don't require a 4-year degree. Those programs have the potential to crank out a lot of workers, but the industry is slow to embrace it.” Biotech programs in two-year colleges, for instance, have been on the upswing, and Balchunas says he’s often surprised at industry’s lack of awareness of those programs. Some players in big pharma, he acknowledges, have dropped degree requirements for manufacturing, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that requires a shift in the biases of technical hiring managers, so the needle has been slow to move.
That needle must move, however, to maintain the momentum that those associate-level programs have gained. Balchunas says it’s difficult for those programs to maintain faculty, when the teachers and professors who staff them can go to industry for considerably more pay. “Industry needs to look at how they can engage and support folks in their local ecosystems, because those colleges are only as strong as their industry partners, and if they don’t have industry advocating for them, those programs will go away.”
Those programs going away simply cannot be an option for a biopharmaceutical industry hankering for more talent and deeper bench strength. Listen to the entirety of our conversation with NIIMBL Workforce Director John Balchunas on episode 148 of the Business of Biotech Podcast, and check out these opportunities for industry involvement in biopharma workforce development:
Learn about the workforce development initiatives at NIIMBL by visiting niimbl.my.site.com
Check out the InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center, and its clearinghouse of colleges offering 2-year biotech programs, at innovatebio.org
Learn how elementary and secondary school students are being exposed to STEM and biotech careers through Project Lead The Way at pltw.org.