Currently, the pharma industry is facing the reality that both its workforce and its manufacturing facilities are aging. As you will read in this month’s cover story, without proper maintenance and upgrading, older facilities and equipment become liabilities. Aging equipment increases the risk of contamination, which can in turn trigger recalls and quality-related issues. Not only can this lead to patient safety concerns and huge financial headaches, but it also plays a big role in our ongoing drug shortage problem.
But are aging workers also a liability? Should the industry be encouraging retirement to make way for the next generation of pharma? While it’s true that younger generations have grown up with technology as a way of life and are thus inherently digitally fluent, tech-savviness can be taught — arguably more easily than transferring years of acquired institutional knowledge.
A few years ago, BMW made public its efforts to “reinvent” its factory for aging workers. The “Today for Tomorrow” project was founded on the belief that the age of an employee has little influence on their ability to learn. BMW made physical changes: bringing physiotherapists onto the factory floor to teach line workers how to stay limber during repetitive tasks, outfitting workers with more comfortable shoes, installing easier-to-read computer screens, and even bringing more daylight into the factories. The company also made psychological changes: BMW redesigned its approach to learning in a way that combined working and learning processes of both older and younger workers. Ultimately, the collective improvements made the work environment safer, more comfortable and more efficient for all workers, regardless of age.
When things start going wrong in facilities, companies typically don’t level the building and start over. Rather than pushing “grandpa” out the door to make room for a kitchen full of gluten-free snack options, maybe the solution lies in updating facilities and workers simultaneously.
When it comes to updating facilities, validation requirements in pharma certainly add complexity. But putting off the updating process only delays the inevitable equipment breakdown or regulatory citation that’s likely to be more costly in the long run than the upgrade would have been.
If the proper maintenance is performed and upgrades are made, aging facilities still have tremendous potential — and the same goes for workers. In the same way that the “facility of the future” does not have to be brand new construction, the workforce of the future does not need to be brand new hires. When given the right tools, grandpa can still hang with the best of them.