The Skills Gap Stalling The March of UK Life Sciences

The Skills Gap Stalling The March of UK Life Sciences
The Skills Gap Stalling The March of UK Life Sciences


Peter Kearney, Chief Operating Officer of Virdis Group

The UK life sciences industry is burgeoning and, thanks in part to the role played by Covid in supercharging a range of sectors, it is on a path toward further expansion. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, recently stated his ambition for the country to become a life sciences ‘superpower’. 

However, at a time of unprecedented development, the industry also finds itself at the center of a skills shortage that threatens to stall, or even halt, its trajectory.

This skills gap is not only a failure of education and training – with too few graduates with the right skill sets emerging from universities and modern apprenticeship programs – the dearth of suitably qualified people is also evident at the sharp end of the industry, where there is a critical lack of experienced scientists, chemists, engineers, and senior executives with a science background.

So, what are the causes of this scarcity that appears to threaten the march of what could, and should, be a world-leading industry? Do the people needed by UK life sciences companies exist and, if so, where are they currently working? Crucially, why are they not willing, or able, to work in the UK and what can be done to take them there?  

The migration of scientists from the UK to other countries might partly explain the shortage. In 2020, the UK experienced a net loss of 1,300 scientists abroad, having been a net importer as recently as 2015, according to OECD data.

At the same time, there has been an apparent drop in the number of scientists coming to the UK to work, both from European Union (EU) countries and beyond. 

The UK’s decision to leave the EU may have had the effect of discouraging scientists from working there. Last October it was reported that 22 of the country’s most senior scientists had decided to leave, due to concerns over the future of funding, caused by the fallout from Brexit. 

It followed delays in negotiations with the EU to keep research funding of £84m for the Horizon Europe program. Brussels said it would not continue with discussions until Brexit-related issues, such as the Northern Ireland protocol, were resolved.

Other contributory factors have included the war in Ukraine, a shortage of lab space in Oxford and Cambridge – which, together with London, form the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of UK life sciences activity – and months of political upheaval in the second half of 2022, when the UK had three prime ministers in as many months.

A series of ongoing ‘fiscal fixes’ – including a rise in the rate of Corporation Tax from 19% to 25%  – may also have had an effect of discouraging investors and scientists, as the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer seeks to rebalance the UK economy.

In this candidate-scarce market, employees have been able to command higher salaries. Clinical research associates and data scientists have seen average salaries rise by 13.7% and 11.9% in the past year, while those in more senior positions have seen wages rise by as much as 25%, as employers seek to attract and retain senior talent.

Companies of all sizes are now routinely offering six-figure salaries for senior people in medical diagnostics and life sciences, which are catching up with equivalent positions in the finance and information technology (IT) industries in the south-east of England.

A lot of talented UK staff are attracted to the US, where salaries are higher and living costs, including housing, are generally lower. The shrinking talent pool in the UK, combined with a fall in the value of sterling against the dollar, has made it more difficult for firms to recruit scientists at the most senior levels. 

In the past decade, China appears also to have become an attractive destination for scientists globally, at the expense of the US.  The comparatively small market in the UK accounts for a disproportionate movement of labor to America and China. From 2005-2018, Europe accounted for just 16% of total cell and gene therapy (CGT) patent registrations, compared with 28% in the US and 56% in China.

Less entrepreneurialism and venture capital, and more adversity to risk in Europe, are often cited as underlying causes of its comparatively small market share, compared with the US.

UK life sciences companies are also losing talent with transferable skills – mostly in statistical and analytical roles – to other sectors which are able to meet their higher wage demands.

Life sciences companies are doing all they can to recruit top talent for their most senior positions, including offering attractive, globally competitive remuneration and relocation packages, and being flexible about where people work. Many are looking to implement more employee-focused practices and retention strategies, such as long-term incentive schemes. 

With recent increases in inflation and in the cost of living, a growing number are exploring more creative financial packages for potential employees, in addition to competitive salaries. Many are opening-up company ownership, through shared equity schemes to attract talent and drive growth.

Start-ups often don’t have the capital to match the salaries of more established firms, and offering equity to key senior employees is an effective way to leverage their company and differentiate them positively from their competitors.

Share ownership options include Enterprise Management Incentive (EMI) schemes, growth shares, ordinary shares, and unapproved option schemes that allow companies to offer tax advantages while improving employee retention and productivity.

Companies can also do more to attract talent by offering potential employees clearer opportunities for career progression. Research consistently shows that people in life sciences want to move to a new role to work with new technologies, on interesting projects and with opportunities for career progression. The least important reasons for them to move are generally for basic pay and flexible working.

Experience, expertise, ethics and knowledge all matter in life sciences, and so building a long-term career plan is important to people working in the sector. 

The most successful companies are those which communicate most clearly with staff, ensuring they know what work their employees find most interesting, and what suits their talents best, so they can set clear career goals and identify the most suitable positions for them. With the wide diversity of disciplines that exist within the sector, employers could also learn to be less focused on the previous experience of potential recruits and look more at their transferable skill set. 

The chances are that those employees who opt to stay with a company for a long time will be doing very different work in five years’ time than that for which they were recruited. The most important skills cited by several studies and publications as being important for life sciences professionals include research ethics, scientific peer communication, bioethics, time management, research project management and scientific knowledge and methods outside of their present research area and awareness of industry trends.

Those who are able to demonstrate a high level of proficiency in those areas would arguably be a stronger recruitment proposition for a firm than those with a track record of experience in a particular silo or research discipline. 

Plugging and reversing the skills gap – to keep expertise in the UK and attract it from abroad – requires a strategic effort involving companies, investors, government, universities and other stakeholders. Finding and keeping the right talent remains the industry’s biggest challenge.


About Peter Kearney

Peter Kearney is Chief Operating Officer of Virdis Group, a global executive search company for the life sciences industry



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