Making biopharmaceutical medicines is a highly technical process that requires a diverse range of handling, production and process skills.
Rapid growth of the sector, combined with the shortage of skilled workers, mean effective hiring and retention strategies are essential for any biopharma company hoping to build a manufacturing workforce.
The production of each biopharmaceutical product is different. The specific cell line, the bioreactor technology and reagents and the downstream processing operations differ drug to drug.
However, the types of operations used are common, which is useful from a team building perspective according to Killian O'Driscoll, projects director at Ireland’s National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT).
“Companies would have an experienced leadership team covering each core functional area such as cell culture, downstream processing, aseptic manufacturing, quality and key support services such as engineering, process development, supply chain and general management functions.”
How these teams interact is very important. Sharing relevant data and feedback with the correct colleagues at the right time is the most effective way of ensuring production runs as planned.
Skills shortages and demand
Finding the employees with the right skills to achieve this balance is a challenge, particularly for more modern biomanufacturing operations.
A recent Skills Ireland report  suggested “Globally it is recognised that there is a shortage of Biopharma talent with experience.”
Similar analysis by the ABPI  also indicates there is a lack of skills in certain areas of biomanufacturing, which is partly being exacerbated by increasing demand.
This view is shared by O’Driscoll who said, “Roles such as bioprocess engineer, automation engineer, commissioning and validation engineers are in currently in high demand.
“Manufacturing 4.0 skillsets such as data analytics, virtual reality, digitisation, automation and robotics are also in short supply” he added.
The emergence of sub sectors like cell and gene therapy is also highlighting the skills shortage according to O’Driscoll.
“We’re beginning to see a diversification in the types of biologic therapeutics from more complex antibodies to Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMPs), which include the exciting cell and gene therapies.
“The sector is only starting to manufacture these therapies at scale and there are many complex challenges to be overcome. This will require a highly skilled workforce with a breath of skills which are not currently available.”
This view is shared by Susan Woodard, TEES Research scientist at the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing at Texas A&M, who told us “There is a current focus on cell culture skills and upstream production due to the rapid growth of cell and gene therapies.”
“Within process development, there is also a need for people experienced in the use of Quality by Design (QbD) principles including Design of Experiments (DoE) approaches to optimize a process and establish a design space within which slight changes in process parameters result in a product with acceptable quality.”
Woodard also predicted that “Cell culture skills will continue to be in demand due to the rapidly growing cell and gene therapy fields. Viral vector production is currently in high demand to support the processes used to make these products so anyone with experience in viral cell culture will be desirable.”
Building a team
How biopharmaceutical firms find the talent they need differs company to company although, again, there are common strategies.
Traditional approaches such as recruitment fairs, agencies, graduate programmes, staff referrals, employee development programmes are employed as are apprenticeship programmes.
However, an increasing number of biopharmaceutical companies are trying to attract the staff they need through their reputation as an employer O’Driscoll says.
“Some biopharmaceutical companies are focusing on developing their culture and brand to ensure their recognised by jobseekers as an exciting and rewarding place to build a career.
“It is very much a jobseekers market and there is a competitive environment for companies to hire and retain talent. Companies who have well developed staff development programmes and an employee focused culture have a clear advantage in retaining and development talent” he said.
Woodard from Texas A&M also says a wide range of recruitment approaches being used.
“They use a variety of methods to try and find employees including recruiting at universities, using social media posts, using recruiters, and contacting centres like ours.
“In many cases, employers are poaching employees from other companies to hire experienced individuals. Therefore, another strategy the bigger companies use is to take their chances on a few recent graduates and place them in jobs where they can work with more experienced team members” Woodard said.
In a “jobseekers market” it is also harder to keep employees. Ever increasing demand means biopharmaceutical companies are effectively competing for manufacturing talent.
Clearly, career development and remuneration are core to convincing staff not to leave, however, there is more to retention that that O’Driscoll says.
“The essence of a good retention strategy is to have a genuine, employee focused culture. Some specific initiatives might include assisted learning and development programmes, flexible working hours, opportunities to work in new areas of technology, progressive diversity and inclusion policies, recognition and empowerment from senior leaders is especially impactful.”
Woodard is of a similar opinion. She told us “Biopharmaceutical manufacturing companies do have high turnover. The work is demanding in terms of being somewhat inflexible. Once you are gowned up to work in the manufacturing areas, it is in the best interest of the process to stay there.
“This lack of freedom can be difficult for some. However, not every job is that way and not every environment is inflexible. One thing that helps is having appropriate staffing levels to enable working in teams or shifts.”
Understanding this dynamic is key to the development of an effective retention strategy according to Woodard.
“One way a company can hold onto staff is to allow employees to move around from one area to another if they have a desire to do so. For example, someone who has worked on the manufacturing floor might be a good person to later work in QA. The best strategy is to reward and promote those who do their jobs well.”