Every industry has its own unique set of challenges, but it’s fair to say that the life sciences face more than most. Today a European life sciences company must navigate issues such as political and regulatory changes, the ongoing evolution of drugs and treatments, economic challenges, developments in technology, and (in the best cases) rapid growth.
But there’s one issue that is becoming more and more pressing for the life sciences sector every year. In such an innovative industry it can be difficult for professionals to develop their skill set at the same rate as the industry as a whole develops. The work involved in the life sciences sector is constantly changing, meaning that the professionals who do the work must also constantly change and evolve. And the rate of change is becoming more rapid every day. All of this means that the life sciences are facing a serious skills shortage in the EU.
According to this Cogent Skills report, four out of five life sciences organisations already have vacancies that are affected by skills shortages, and 72% consistently struggled to find appropriate applicants for ‘hard-to-fill’ positions. These hard-to-fill jobs are those that require very specific scientific and technical skill sets - deep knowledge in a specific scientific field, or the ability to utilise new tech to further the organisation’s work.
Certain steps are already being taken to address these shortages at a governmental level. In 2013 the Netherlands signed the National Technology Pact 2020, which aimed to improve the alignment between education and a variety of technology markets, including energy, horticulture, health and the life sciences, which was hoped to reduce the shortage of technically trained staff.
But life sciences companies who sit on their hands and wait for governments to fix the skills shortage for them are destined to be the hardest struck by the shortage of technically adept employees. Broader change will be gradual, and in the meantime your company must do all that it can to develop its employees skills in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
So, what can your company do to overcome the skills shortage, both now and into the future?
Let’s take a look at eight strategies that might help you to find, develop and retain the services of skilled life sciences talent.
1. Offer a development program
A life science organisation’s best source of talent is its existing employees. They’ve already proven themselves as valuable team members, so it makes sense to invest in upskilling them and allowing them to grow professionally.
This can also prove to be a big draw-card for top life sciences talent. The finest life sciences professionals will continually look to develop themselves, so if you’re a company that facilitates this development, either through an in-house development program or by paying for external training for their employees, you’ll be a more desirable destination than those employers that don’t.
There are a wealth of life sciences training organisations in Europe, many of which offer short courses that can be delivered on-site, minimising workday interruption. An organisation’s most valuable asset is its people, and the money spent on this asset will offer a stunning return on investment.
2. Promote skilled careers to the next generation of workers
To some degree the life sciences sector has an image problem. It’s not the sexiest of industries, being so often linked with old age, death and disease, so when a bright young mind comes to choosing their professional path, other technology sectors often seem more alluring.
The key to changing this perception, and showing exactly how exciting, interesting and rewarding the life sciences can be, is to get ‘em young.
Organise in-house events for students. Give guest lectures at high schools, or train career counsellors to do the same. Find ways to show the next generation of workers that the life sciences sector is booming, and there’ll be no shortage of work in the future. Show how their work could help the world to live healthier, happier and longer lives. Show how personally lucrative a career in the life sciences can be. Focus on the sectors that are short on skilled workers, actively selling them as a great career choice.
It’s important to educate the students on how to adapt to the demands of future life science work. Spark their interest in those areas that will suffer most from skills shortages, and give them the tools and knowledge they will need to succeed. Doing all this effectively will not only attract more young people to the life sciences who are ready to fill skills gaps, but if you brand these events well, they’ll be attracted to your company in particular.
3. Broaden your life sciences talent search
Did you know that China produces no less than 150,000 life sciences graduates every year? While the European talent market slows, others are booming.
Sharing one third of the world’s population between them, China and India are by far the largest talent pools in the world, no matter what industry you’re in. What’s more, they’re both in the throes of a huge transformation – between 2009 and 2030 China is expected to add 850 million people to its middle class, and India won’t be far behind. Greater wealth brings greater levels of education, turning these countries into talent production lines.
All this is to say that any European skills shortage could be offset by the skills excess of other countries. Those who are willing to broaden their talent search beyond city, country and continental lines are far more likely to find workers to fill specific skills gaps than those who stick within their borders.
4. Don’t automatically disregard certain talent demographics
It can be risky to take on a graduate fresh out of university, or a senior professional that may only have a few years of work left in them. But during a skills shortage these talent demographics are ignored at a company’s peril.
The truth is that the negatives of employing a particularly inexperienced or a particularly old professional are so often focused on, while the overwhelming positives are ignored. A young graduate may require plenty of training before they can truly fill a skills gap, but this allows a company to mould them into whatever it wants them to be. The company could potentially enjoy decades of service from a highly skilled, custom-made worker. And while an older professional may only have a handful of years of service left in them, the experience that they bring to the table can see them comfortably filling a skills gap, while helping younger and newer employees to learn far faster than they otherwise would.
Skills shortage aside, you should be actively searching out graduates and senior professionals anyway, as they can bring both diversity and balance to your team; an overwhelmingly good thing in business. Diverse workplaces are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market, and can generate up to 2.3 times the cash flow of non-diverse companies. As Europe’s population ages, older professionals will become ever more important, as they begin to outnumber the younger ones.
5. Be transparent with potential employees
It can be tempting to keep certain aspects of your workplace or an open job a secret during the hiring process. In a market experiencing a skills shortage you don’t want to scare off a highly skilled potential employee with the less enticing aspects of a job, or reveal your organisation to be a bad culture fit for a candidate.
But a lack of transparency is a recipe for disaster. The truth will quickly come out when the employee starts work, which can see them walking out the door as quickly as they walked in. A revolving door of employees can sap a company’s resources, costing it far more than if the position was simply left vacant until the right candidate was found.
When hunting for skilled talent, you need to clearly communicate the skills that will be required to do the job. Be open about all aspects of the job, and transparent about your corporate culture. Set reasonable expectations. If you find it difficult to fill positions with all your cards laid bare, your business needs to evolve.
6. Cultivate adaptability within your team
Life science is a broad and far-reaching industry. One of the reasons for the current skills shortage is simply the amount of different skills gaps that need to be plugged.
One solution to this problem is to trade ultra-specialised teams for more adaptable ones. Encourage employees to develop their skills in areas of interest, and give them more freedom to work on different tasks. You can use adaptable workers as a stop gap while you try to fill a highly skilled position, or as a more permanent strategy.
7. Be realistic with your recruiting strategy
Do your current recruiting strategies and practices reflect the realities of a life sciences market short on skilled workers?
Many life sciences companies won’t have re-evaluated their recruiting strategy for years, and will still be using a formula created when there was a wealth of skilled talent to choose from. But the reality is that a modern day life sciences organisation can’t afford to be picky, too specific, or pay anything less than the market rate. If you’re finding it difficult to fill skills gaps, you need to take a long, hard look at your recruiting processes, and bring them in line with the realities of the current talent market.
8. Use contingent workers
What’s better – a temporary/part-time employee, or no employee at all? While many life sciences companies may be hesitant to employ contingent workers, a skills shortage makes these workers extremely valuable. Highly skilled professionals often recognise their unique talents, and become contractors rather than full time employees. You need to be ready to take on workers on a part-time or temporary basis if you are to successfully plug skills gaps.
The European skills shortage in life sciences is serious, and as technology and science continue to develop, it’ll only get more so in the foreseeable future. But by understanding the challenges it will bring, and taking a proactive approach, your organisation will be far better placed than those who simply choose to ignore it.