Demand will be higher than anticipated for biopharmaceutical manufacturing talent!
March 31, 2020
Opinion Piece by John Balchunas
March 31, 2020
The last few weeks have undoubtedly been a paradigm shift for many in our community. Whether an educator, parent, student, scientist, or executive – every single member of the NIIMBL community is adapting quickly to new norms in our business, academic, and personal lives in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. As the world is waiting for vaccines, treatments, and testing technologies to reach clinicians and patients quickly, NIIMBL’s mission of driving biopharmaceutical manufacturing innovation hits home – ever more clearly.
As we all recognize NIIMBL’s focus on technology and workforce innovation, it is worth reflecting on the potential ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic on the biopharmaceutical manufacturing workforce. It is also time to begin thinking about how we, as a community, can stay ahead of the game and mitigate risk.
Stepping back to pre-coronavirus for a moment, we already knew the industry is at an inflection point with respect to growth. In looking at my home state of North Carolina as a representative ecosystem, the evidence is there. A recent workforce assessment  completed by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech) recognizes the potential for 5,000 new biopharma jobs in the state in just 5 years. While a significant portion of that growth is due to expansion of cell and gene therapy manufacturing operations, 85% of companies noted they anticipate adding headcount over the next five years – so it’s not JUST cell and gene therapy, and North Carolina is just one example of a growth trend likely true nationwide. A recent Deloitte report  noted that “biologics are predicted to comprise more than a quarter of the pharmaceutical market by 2020” and the FDA anticipates reviewing and approving between 10 and 20 cell and gene therapies each year by 2025.
At the end of the day, one thing is becoming resoundingly clear. The biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry will need an increased supply of talent at all post-secondary levels to grow, expand, and meet the challenges introduced by emerging technologies and new therapeutic areas. Why is this? As new developments are made, the need for people to help manufacture these treatments and technologies is growing more rapidly. While the demand for these jobs already existed pre COVID-19, when coupled with a growing pandemic and sluggish hiring rates due to personal distancing, the need increases exorbitantly.
Opportunities and Challenges
In reflecting on the evolving coronavirus pandemic, we must consider some new opportunities and challenges that we will collectively face with implications to education, training, and workforce development:
The biopharmaceutical industry is working on pandemic solutions, which will increase manufacturing capacity, and drive a need for more talent. It’s not surprising that the Department of Homeland Security flagged the pharmaceutical sector as critical infrastructure in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies, including many of NIIMBL’s members, are actively engaged in developing vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, plasma-derived therapies, rapid test kits, and other tools in the fight against COVID-19. With each new product approved comes the need for more manufacturing capacity and talent. While hiring will inevitably slow in the short term, biopharmaceutical manufacturing will need additional technicians, operators, engineers, analytical scientists, and corporate professionals to support commercial manufacturing of new products. The industry will need more than scientists, engineers, and technicians – everyone who can drive innovation is needed.
The coronavirus pandemic severely impacts the economy and will raise unemployment. As evidence points to physical distancing being critical to slowing the spread of coronavirus, we all are hunkering down. The US Department of Labor data indicate layoffs and unemployment claims have spiked 33% in just a week – the largest change since the Great Recession. If this is indicative of what’s to come, we must anticipate high levels of possible unemployment as people focus on reacting to longer term impacts of downturns in the economy.
Unemployment and slow hiring may make it tough for new graduates to find jobs. While some college seniors approaching graduation have hopefully locked down job offers, there are many more graduates who will struggle to find jobs due to a slower economy and corporate restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Competition between new graduates and current professionals with industry experience will increase. In response, it is expected that some students will stay in school to further their education possibly incurring greater expenses while others may seek and find employment in unrelated industries.
Generating excitement for careers in biopharma must remain a priority. While I anticipate hiring will slow down in the short term, I feel that hiring in biopharma will pick up as a natural response to the previously-noted increase in manufacturing capacity. In preparing for this growth, we must continue to attract diverse populations into the biopharmaceutical industry. In addition to college students from a wide swath of disciplines, we must look at strategies for attracting displaced workers, disadvantaged populations, and military veterans into the industry.
Educators at all levels are rapidly learning how to teach online. As most universities and community colleges are moving courses online for the remainder of the semester, faculty and instructional staff are quickly learning how to leverage collaboration and distance education tools, as the “show must go on”. This is no small feat, especially when it comes to developing online versions of “hands-on” bioprocessing labs. While it’s a major challenge at the moment, my hunch is there will be tremendous pedagogical innovations born out of necessity within the NIIMBL community. Let’s take augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) as an example. While AR/VR technologies have held promise, they have been hard to justify value over hands-on training in practicality. Our rapidly-evolving educational paradigm in response to the coronavirus pandemic may provide an opportunity to better evaluate the effectiveness of such technologies.
While hiring will inevitably slow in the short term, biopharmaceutical manufacturing will need additional technicians, operators, engineers, analytical scientists, and corporate professionals to support commercial manufacturing of new products. The industry will need more than scientists, engineers, and technicians – everyone who can drive innovation is needed.
Call to Action
NIIMBL recognizes a significant need to ensure students, graduates, veterans, professionals in other industries, and the unemployed (and underemployed) are aware and prepared for career opportunities in biopharmaceutical manufacturing. There are many education, training, and professional development resources within the NIIMBL community – both through projects we have funded as well as other options for e-learning, short courses, degree programs, and grant-funded initiatives. As the education, training, and workforce development paradigm continues to evolve, I anticipate we will collectively benefit from an increased understanding of available education and training resources. With this in mind, NIIMBL plans to launch new efforts and facilitate existing efforts focused on increasing collaboration, expanding awareness, and ensuring easy access to education, training, and professional development resources related to biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Stay tuned!