Skills Gap: What Are The Most Sought-After Skills In Life Sciences & How Is The UK Bridging The Gap

8-9 Minutes

If you keep up with Life Sciences news, or you’re a frequent visitor to our blog, you’ll be...

By Emily Davies

Senior Content Writer

If you keep up with Life Sciences news, or you’re a frequent visitor to our blog, you’ll be familiar with the skills gap – the need to effectively match the supply of new skills in line with the demand for specialised roles and emerging technology. 


In the UK, Life Sciences is one of our most productive industries, attracting talent and investors from around the globe for our internationally renowned innovation. Innovation that results in a turnover of £73.8 billion each year, around £1 billion of inward investment, and an average Gross Value Added (GVA) per worker reaching £104,000 per year. For reference, that’s more than double the UK average across all other sectors! 


On top of that, the Life Sciences ecosystem within the UK also boasts three of the top ten universities in the world, six of the top 20 global universities for clinical, pre-clinical, and health research, and an integrated system with high-quality patient data that can conduct clinical trials at scale. 


What’s more, over the last decade, the industry has seen an 8% increase in employment, and Life Sciences exported goods have reached 5% more in value than all other UK exports. 


Of course, the continued success and prosperity of the industry depend on the skills and talent in the workforce, which only makes us question why we’re lacking in skills and what we’re going to do about it. 


For context, one report by McKinsey notes that 80% of pharma-manufacturing companies reported a skills mismatch, and another report by ABPI found that 43% of pharma companies rated a lack of digital literacy skills a critical or major concern. 


We understand that these figures are unnerving because attracting the right talent with the right skills in this high-growth sector is essential for UK Life Sciences to attract the funding required to continue to innovate. With that in mind, in this article, we’re going to understand the Life Sciences sector’s need for skills and how the UK plans to bridge the gap.



So, what sub-sectors of Life Sciences are skills shortages most common?


According to ABPI’s Bridging The Skills Gap Report, skills shortages are currently the biggest concern in the following areas:

  • Biological Sciences – immunology and genomics
  • Clinical Areas – clinical pharmacology
  • Regulatory Areas – regulatory affairs, pharmacovigilance and quality assurance 
  • Informatics, Computational, Mathematical and Statistics – biomedical imaging, chemometrics and chemoinformatics, computational chemistry and pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamics modelling
  • Chemical Science – medicinal and synthetic organic chemistry



And what skills are most sought-after in the Life Sciences industry today?


In order to fulfil the industry’s potential and ensure the UK maintains a competitive edge, there are six standout areas that need more attention. Let’s dive straight in…


 1.    Digital, Computer and Statistical Literacy


With continued digital developments ensuing, just like many other sectors, Life Sciences needs to upskill its current workforce to make the most out of technological advancements that aid many Life Sciences professionals’ work. 


At the moment, there’s a reported gap between the US and the UK’s capabilities in this area. To remain at the forefront of global innovation, the UK must ensure a solid stream of data science skills, including technical experts and those who combine laboratory and computer skills.


So, how can Life Sciences companies find and entice that talent to their business? 


The first step would be strategizing how to attract, develop and retain more data scientists. The second; upskilling current staff whose roles might not have previously required data management or computer skills and offering them the tools to enhance their ability to manage large datasets. 


On top of that, Life Sciences organisations should also consider promoting familiarisation with Big Data technologies across the business, developing the talent pipeline to attract more health economists to maximise the benefits of larger and richer datasets, and building out the capabilities of chemical and process control engineers to generate efficiencies in development processes. 


2.    Skills Reflective of Technology and Regulatory Changes


The ongoing transformation of digital capabilities will continue to change the healthcare landscape. However, because of the energetic pace at which new technology is emerging, today’s regulatory environment has challenges of its own. 


Regulatory bodies need to juggle trying to maintain a balance between encouraging innovation, protecting consumers, and addressing the potential unintended consequences of disruption. But as rising technologies drive new business opportunities forward, regulations must be modified, created, enforced, and communicated to the public at a rate previously unheard of. 


What’s more, since the UK departed from the EU, the number of regulatory workers has dramatically dropped, adding to the skills shortage. To fix this, the number of people training in regulatory requirements needs to be broader and deeper across the whole industry, as this skillset is only going to become more in demand.



3.    Leadership Skills


While less Life Sciences specific, leadership skills are essential when it comes to collaboration, both on a global and domestic scale. 


Defining and encouraging excellence in differing roles throughout your business will help address skills shortages as well as create more leaders with growth mindsets, adopting and utilising multiple skills simultaneously. 


That’s because a ‘good’ leader in Life Sciences doesn’t boil down to one singular quality. Instead, it’s those who use an entire skillset, including being a convincing communicator, an agile and adaptive thinker, someone who acts with integrity, possesses great partnership skills, and is digitally dexterous and financially fluent. 


Finding and nurturing these traits in talent will only optimise performance and, therefore, business – no matter what area of Life Sciences you find yourself in. 


So far, Life Sciences has shown it’s ahead of other industries in nurturing diverse leaders, with Grant Thorton’s Women in Business 2022 report finding that out of the 15 industries surveyed, Life Sciences had the highest proportion of women in senior leadership roles. Still, there’s room for improvement, as Biospace’s 2022 Women in Life Sciences report found that although women make up 48% of the Life Sciences workforce, only 31% of them are in executive-level positions.


Promoting diversity in leadership and cultivating an inclusive culture is an essential factor in keeping employees engaged at all levels – after all, research shows that companies with diverse leadership teams tend to outperform their counterparts!



4.    Skills For Cross-Team and Cross-Disciplinary Working


Because of the current skills shortage throughout the whole sector, increasing and enhancing cross-team and cross-disciplinary working can help bridge the gap by sharing and lending knowledge, expertise, and capabilities. 


Not only does this foster wider collaboration between employees, but it can also improve organisational structure by developing versatility, increasing flexibility, and helping companies prepare for both the expected and the unexpected.


To increase this style of working – training employees to be able to do the work of another employee in addition to their primary job role – soft skills such as intellectual curiosity, integrity, a strong work ethic, and follow-up skills must also be developed.


One sub-sector that has seen this work in their favour is the medical technology space. That’s because as med tech grows, those in positions such as quality assurance and regulatory affairs collaborate much earlier in the product lifecycle than what’s typical within Life Sciences. This has only resulted in teams developing deeper and more varied knowledge in these areas.


5.    Assisting and Accelerating Career Agility


The rate of ongoing changes throughout the Life Sciences industry welcomes fresh opportunities to attract and compete for talent from outside sectors. 


As you might’ve guessed, speedy digital developments in clinical trials, interactions between healthcare providers and patients, and data-driven operations in supply chains have dramatically inflated the importance of technology within Life Sciences and brought about a sense of urgency in hiring and retaining tech talent. 


Of course, in order to persuade those from outside sectors to make the leap into Life Sciences, the industry must promote itself as an attractive career option (which we know it is!), demonstrating clear routes into the Life Sciences space and providing appropriate and ample training to facilitate career agility. 


And now is the perfect time to do so, since research has found that a large proportion of tech talent are unsatisfied in their current roles, with 78% considering leaving their current role and 72% reporting they’d take a pay cut for the ideal job. While the demand for these skills is booming, the Life Sciences industry holds critical opportunity to attract and retain the very best tech talent.


To help in their quest for tech specialists, many Life Sciences organisations are adding to their C-suite with Chief Digital Officers (CDOs). To drive their digital ambitions, GSK notably pursued CDOs with experience in more digitally mature industries, helping them transition to new ways of working. As a result, GSK has now transformed its digital, data, and analytics capabilities and boasts one of the finest commercial operating models.



6.    Succession Planning For an Ageing Workforce


Like most sectors in the UK (and the world, for that matter!), an ageing workforce within Life Sciences comes with its own challenges. That’s because when employees retire and leave their place of work, a loss of critical information often goes with them, creating a ‘knowledge gap’. 


To avoid this, it is vital that the industry plans and enables the transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next – particularly for businesses with bespoke equipment and technology. 


So, what does a successful succession plan entail? 


First off, creating a solid succession plan begins with regular conversations with employees to foster a culture of open, honest communication. Doing so should encourage employees to keep their managers well-informed of their plans, thus helping identify roles that will need to be filled in the near or distant future.


Secondly, incorporating mentoring and shadowing allows experienced staff to share wisdom and knowledge and prepare the next generation to take on these roles. In fact, 84% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programmes in place, and 79% of millennials see mentoring as a critical component to a successful career!


And lastly, make sure you’re documenting the essentials. For experienced and specialised employees, many daily tasks and responsibilities can easily be forgotten in a mentoring session. For best practice, note everything in a database, so if you do suddenly or unexpectedly lose an employee, you’ve got a backup. 



So, what’s the UK’s strategy for bridging the skills gap in Life Sciences?


According to the Science Industry Partnerships (SIP) Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy, around 133,000 Life Sciences jobs will need to be filled by 2030. Broken down, that’s an enormous 43,000 in Biopharma and a stratospheric 90,000 in Med Tech! To do so, SIP is focusing on these key factors:

  • Attracting and retaining globally mobile talent, including recruiting and retaining highly skilled workers from the EU and beyond
  • Understanding, anticipating and responding to skills gaps across all occupations
  • Supporting mobility between sectors to support the sharing of knowledge and development of skills
  • Supporting the training of academic scientists to facilitate their migration into the industry
  • Developing apprenticeships and facilitating the take-up of apprenticeships, particularly by SMEs
  • Improving digital skills across the entire workforce
  • Accelerating convergence at the interface between Life Sciences, computer science, maths, statistics, engineering and chemistry in the fields of diagnostics, personalised medicines and data science 





No one can deny the skills gap occurring because of new processes within the Life Sciences industry, however, we’re confident in the resilience of the workforce as a whole. That’s because the Life Sciences sector has demonstrated time and time again its adaptability to adjustments and modifications and solidified itself as a growth industry, with the UK positioning itself as a fundamental player in the increasing demand for personalised treatments. 


The skills gap is another hurdle we’re optimistic we’ll overcome – particularly with the growing excitement and interest in the space. Nonetheless, a determined recruitment drive, supported by an educational push, is necessary to make change happen. 


For more insight on what skills/roles are most popular in Life Sciences today (either in the UK or elsewhere), reach out to us.  

Book in a call with one of the team about your hiring needs.

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