Benn Chacksfield, Head of Propositions at Tiro, says employers should consider alternative avenues of recruitment to avert the looming skills crisis.
The bioscience sector has never been more prominent in public consciousness in the wake of the nation’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination effort, and with investment into the sector at a high. But staffing shortages are creating issues for employers taking on new contracts.
With the sector more well-respected and recognised than ever before, employers have the opportunity to use this influx of investment to showcase the opportunities available, and develop a sustainable talent pipeline by drawing in young talent. But where to start?
The current climate
The UK’s response to COVID-19 was severely hampered by the country’s laboratory capacity, not caused by a lack of equipment or chemicals to conduct the tests, but a shortage of skilled staff. And while many may think that this is a new issue that emerged due to the pandemic and will simply shrink back into obscurity once it is over, it’s not as simple as that.
The chronic shortage of skilled laboratory technicians has stunted the growth of UK businesses for many years. It has reduced the efficiency and output of key growth sectors, inhibited innovation, and reduced our competitiveness on the world stage.
The National Audit Office was clear in its diagnosis: the problem lies in low participation in technician-level vocational education. The workforce is currently oversupplied by graduates, who lack the technical skills for these roles, and undersupplied by vocational learning options.
This was confirmed in our own survey of senior laboratory technicians. Only 11% had engaged in vocational education, the vast majority (84%) learnt on the job and 57% agreed that there is a lack of options for laboratory technicians to gain recognition for their technical skills and knowledge.
The UK government has been very clear on its ambitions to become a science and research superpower in the coming years, and the attention brought by the sector’s involvement in the COVID effort has attracted welcome investment.
But the shortage of new recruits for the industry remains a problem and may lead to an ageing workforce with a huge loss of skills at risk in the future. Last year alone the number of people employed in a bioscience role was 95,800 which has been steadily declining from its 104,500 peak back in 2015. In addition to this, hiring opportunities are often missed out on and high costs of sub-contraction are used to supplement this. All of this combines to stunt industry growth.
In short, the government isn’t going to meet its ambitions without the people. Investment will be wasted without the people to deliver it. And companies are missing out on opportunities to grow because they are stuck in an old-fashioned mindset where graduates – and only graduates – are the solution to all their workforce issues.
Attracting talent early in their career and training candidates to an organisation’s own standards can create a more sustainable talent pipeline via a culture of continuous on the job learning. The next step would be to develop a workforce agile to future changes and uncertainties akin to the ones we’ve experienced over the last few years.
There is a growing admission in the UK that a university degree isn’t always superior. From our work with employers, we understand some of the frustrations and associated expenses of using graduates to fill vacancies. Instead, work-based training coupled with recruitment that seeks out the right values and motivations can better equip a bioscience candidate to meet the needs of their employer,when the right training is deployed.
In addition to allowing organisations to tailor-make the employees they need, apprenticeships can foster loyalty, boost engagement and productivity across the entire business, and allow future talent to benefit from the experience and skills of longstanding employees. It’s never been more crucial for the world of bioscience in a post-covid world not to miss out.
1. BMJ: Covid 19 – what’s going wrong with testing in the UK?
2. House of Lords (2018) Treating Students Fairly
3. National Audit Office (2018) Delivering STEM report
Statista (2021) Estimated number of biological scientists and biochemists in the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2021