While the exact origins of the expression “elephant in the room” are murky, the 1935 Broadway musical “Jumbo” gives some insight. In the musical — which told the story of a struggling circus — there was a famous scene where actor Jimmy Durante attempts to sneak his favorite elephant off the circus grounds. He is caught by the sheriff who naturally asks, “Where are you going with that elephant?” to which Durante replies, “What elephant?”
There’s definitely an elephant in the room when it comes to discussing the biopharma workforce, but the industry might just be busy dealing with an entire circus of challenges.
This month, our cover story is focused on the biopharma workforce skills gap. According to…well, everyone, this elephant has been standing in the biopharma “classroom” for years. And as new types of therapeutics race towards commercialization and the industry is grappling with their highly complex and specific manufacturing processes, the issue is growing more urgent. A shortage of skilled workers on the manufacturing floor threatens the growth of incredible scientific breakthroughs, such as cell and gene therapies.
So, why isn’t the biopharma industry in full panic mode over what appears to be a pretty big elephant? When it comes to addressing new challenges, perhaps the better question for biopharma is, “Which elephant?” As major global pharma companies are shifting their presence into biopharma at a rapid pace, they are navigating the complexities of scale-up, shipping, and storage of drugs made from living cells, and on top of this, quality control and costs. That’s a lot of elephants in a lot of rooms.
When it comes to the growing skills gap, many biopharma companies have come up with their own solutions, such as devising internal training programs as well as establishing career and mentoring programs. This is not surprising as the pharma industry as a whole has always been pretty good at solving its own problems.
But many argue that more needs to be done and that the industry needs a true paradigm shift in training. This shift is already underway, but it’s a slow one. The need for competency-based training and for workers to be able to “hit the plant floor running,” means that industry employees need more than just classroom learning — they need hands-on training on actual plant floor equipment.
Fortunately, academia is stepping up to help with this training. Institutes such as NC State’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center and the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing are offering hands-on training on state-of-the-art equipment in GMP-simulated environments. But there is still work to be done. Increased collaboration between industry and academia and even competing academic institutions is necessary to advance this much needed change.
If the biopharma industry grows as projected, it will need a steady supply of well-trained workers ready to manufacture tomorrow’s super drugs, so the time for change is now. It means challenging the status quo. But efforts will no doubt pay off, resulting in better trained, more effective workers producing better and more effective treatments. And one less elephant in what looks to be a very crowded room.