Dr. Gillian Burgess, Site Head of UK Research and Vice President at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Board Member of the Science Industry Partnership (SIP) of employers, sets out the business case for greater use of apprenticeships across the life science industries.

Gillian chairs  the SIP’s Education Working Group.

Over the last few years, the life science sector’s approach to recruiting new talent has been undergoing a period of positive transformation. Advances in digital technologies will create enormous possibilities and opportunities across the life science sector and we need people with the necessary skills to optimise these exciting new advances.

Until recently, life science companies seeking manufacturing or research and development professionals focussed their new talent recruitment on a regular intake of graduates straight from University. Of course, such graduate talent has long supported our sector’s ability to innovate, but there is more to do as we face replacement demand, introduction of new technologies and growing skills shortages in key vocational areas.

The above drivers and the changing shape of the sector have seen a revision in approach to skills and talent. There has been an increase in the use of highly specialised, demanding apprenticeships across the science-based industries.

We know that the skills needs of the future will be driven by the adoption of a range of scientifically focused, digital technologies combined with core science skills. The Science Industry Partnership*, through its Skills Strategy 2025, identified five enabling technologies which will underpin the future success of the science-based sector.

1. informatics and big data

2. synthetic biology and biotechnology

3. advanced manufacturing

4. formulation technology

5. materials science

Through consultation and analysis we have identified a number of shortage occupations, which require immediate action to increase availability in the labour market. These include informaticians, computational scientists and formulation scientists as well as some engineering roles critical to the adoption of such technologies.

In order to meet this challenge, science employers have been turning to apprenticeships, including Degree Level apprenticeships, to build a scientific and technical skills pipeline. As employers, we recognise that skills for innovation are a combination of both the academic and the practical. We increasingly want individuals who can manage and analyse data and use it to make decisions. We also want team members with leadership and management skills, to be able to solve problems, work through challenges, and manage projects.

Apprenticeships, particularly Degree Apprenticeships, can deliver all of this. Degree Apprenticeships combine work, on-the-job learning and funded part-time university education. Thus they provide a mixture of workplace learning, practical experience and academic study, and lead to a university degree.

The employer-led Science Industry Partnership (SIP), of which Vertex is a member, is working to drive the development of specialist apprenticeships for the sector by identifying the key job roles where an apprenticeship represents the ideal solution to closing a skills gap or shortage.

The SIP is developing high-level apprenticeship standards, which are the foundation upon which all apprenticeships are built. One example of this is the Laboratory Scientist Degree Apprenticeship Standard, the first one at Degree level to be developed by the employer-led Life Sciences and Industrial Science Trailblazer Group. This approach allows young people to gain a full University honours degree while earning a salary, and working on practical tasks in a laboratory environment.

Another innovative approach to specialised education that the SIP has supported is the Apprenticeship Levy, which was 

developed by the Government, and is designed to encourage apprenticeships. Companies with a payroll of over £3 million must pay into the pot, but companies of any size or payroll can take from the levy pot and utilise the funding for training of an apprentice at any level. All types of life science employers can utilise the levy ‘pot’ to take on new talent and future-proof their organisation. Information on Apprentice Training Providers and Apprentice Training Agencies, which can take on parts of the apprentice training and management process can be found on the Education and Skills Funding Agency website www.gov.uk/government/organisations/education-and-skills-funding-agency

The SIP is working to tackle the significant skills challenge the sector faces. Forecasts suggest that the science industries cumulative demand for staff between 2015 and 2025 will be in the range of 180,000 to 260,000 professional and technical staff. Which is one reason why our members worked closely with Government to provide input to a comprehensive skills component to the Life Science Sector Deal. The Deal sets out commitments we have developed with the Government to support and deliver the skills we need for jobs now and in the future.

There is a significant skills challenge ahead and the SIP is working collaboratively with our skills partners, nationally and regionally. Our roles range from technical to specialist, all delivering long term and rewarding careers in a growth industry, and many of which can be accessed through apprenticeships.

For all of us in life sciences, innovation is the critical success factor for a sustainable science industry future. This means that we need to equip our incoming new talent with the practical skills to be able to step into a range of key science occupations, which support us in delivering the products and technologies that, as we say at Vertex, help us create transformative medicines for people with serious and life-threatening diseases.

*The Science Industry Partnership (SIP) is a network of employers influencing and developing the skills needed for the life science sector.



The Life Sciences & Industrial Science Trailblazer group has delivered and received ministerial approval for a range of apprenticeship standards:

• Laboratory Technician

• Science Manufacturing Technician

• Laboratory Scientist

• Science Industry Maintenance Technician

• Technician Scientist

• Science Manufacturing Process Operative

• Science Industry Plant/Process Engineer

• Bioinformatics Standard

• Clinical Trials Specialist