Weathering the workforce storm

April 20, 2023
The pharma industry must place more value on nontraditional and ‘skills-first’ pathway models

The pharmaceutical industry is at a critical inflection point. In talking to manufacturers across the U.S., the message is ubiquitous and resoundingly clear: Candidate pools are shrinking, and the ecosystem cannot find the desired talent to fill critical manufacturing roles.

Hamstrung by a perfect storm of intense growth, traditional ways of attracting talent, and longstanding biases toward degreed individuals, companies steer their ships through changing conditions as best they can.

Interestingly, there is a rising tide of potential solutions as universities, community colleges and nonprofits have begun shifting attention toward nontraditional and ‘skills-first’ pathway models including apprenticeships, certificate programs, micro credentials and bootcamp-style onboarding programs. Yet these solutions are often ignored or undervalued. To weather this storm, the industry must place more value on these efforts to ensure talent pipelines are opened to keep up with industry demand. 

Growth and innovation meet tradition

Attend any industry conference and you’ll likely hear the same anecdotes: Strong growth forecasts in the pharma industry fueled by the pandemic. Intense growth specifically within emerging product modalities such as cell and gene therapy. Increased regulatory submissions and approvals. Lots of room for manufacturing innovation — and a seemingly ubiquitous need for talent. In many ways, it really is a perfect storm — with companies feeling the competitive pressures to attract, develop and retain the workforce needed to keep up with growth and innovation.

Companies focused on emerging technologies such as cell therapy, gene therapy and personalized medicine are in a uniquely precarious position. Ten years ago, such companies could lure scientific and technical talent with bleeding edge science, a thriving culture and office perks and amenities. In today’s culture, however, all those things have become standard fare at most companies.

“Attracting and retaining talent was much simpler five years ago. Today, the price of admission has changed,” says Scott Gottesman, vice president, Human Resources, AVROBIO. “As we think about a more modern value proposition, understanding peoples’ purpose and connecting that to your organization’s values becomes essential in the war for talent. The talent today and in the future have clear purpose in their lives and companies that have values in direct line of that purpose will be best positioned to acquire and retain the talent moving forward.”

When compounded by post-pandemic pressures associated with remote work and flexible working hours, it’s become increasingly hard for many companies to close the deal on key talent.

A growing notion among many workforce development professionals is that there are not enough degreed candidates to keep up with industry growth. This will be a challenge for an industry that has long used degree-based education and previous work experiences as proxies for evaluating candidates. Attracting the next generation of scientific and technical talent will require broadening recruiting funnels and opening minds to new and innovative approaches to educating, training and preparing tomorrow’s workforce.

‘Skills first’ approaches

Innovation in education, training and workforce development is happening across the globe. From innovative community college degree programs, badging and micro-credentialing initiatives, certification programs, apprenticeships, and the employment of disabled and neurodivergent populations, there is a wealth of opportunity available to the U.S. pharma/biopharma manufacturing ecosystem alone. While many of these ‘skills first’ approaches have demonstrated significant regional success, national and international adoption of nontraditional and innovative hiring approaches requires broad awareness and systems change.

Community college system

The community college system in the U.S. is integral to the development of tomorrow’s technical workforce. 

Community college pathways into pharma manufacturing careers have existed for decades, with the launch of the first two-year biotechnology degree program in the 1980s. The years since have seen a proliferation of relevant education and training programs through U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. Within the U.S., approximately 100 two-year colleges, distributed across 40 states, currently offer degrees (and/or certificates) in biotechnology and related disciplines, according to InnovATEBIO, a consortium of biotech and pharma industry-oriented community colleges. Their graduates have been hired by more than 1,376 employers in the U.S., including most of the familiar names in big pharma.

Unfortunately, declining enrollment and staffing challenges are evident in many state community college systems as highly skilled faculty find greener grass in the thriving industry. A new whitepaper released by the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) focuses on these challenges and notes that “the causes are multi-faceted, with cascading effects on biopharmaceutical manufacturing career awareness, program sustainability, and student placement. At the core, deeper industry engagement is critical to build and sustain institutional support for new and existing community college programs, to catalyze the formation of new and innovative programs, and most critically, to ensure that graduates from community college degree, diploma, and certificate programs are employed and adding value to the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry.”1

Certification and credentialing

Certification and credentialing are mainstays in many industries, including health care and information technology, but have historically been slow to gain widespread adoption in the U.S. pharma manufacturing community. As the industry continues to grow and expand, it will be critical that we better leverage alternative ways of demonstrating skill and/or aptitude beyond a college degree.

When it comes to industry-recognized certification and credentials in biopharma, there have been successes. In North Carolina, a one-semester community college course called BioWork enables job seekers to earn a certificate that demonstrate a basic understanding of biopharma manufacturing, as well as the measurement science, chemistry and math underpinning technician jobs.

At the national level, Biotility, under the auspices of the University of Florida, administers and maintains the Biotechnician Assistant Credentialing Exam (BACE). The BACE assesses a candidate’s mastery of knowledge and skill sets valued by the industry for technician-level positions and a complete framework review occurs every three years to ensure the BACE remains current with industry needs nationwide. Credential earners have demonstrated they can seamlessly enter the workplace and quickly train on company-specific protocols relating to manufacturing, quality and laboratory-based roles.

To date, Biotility has credentialed more than 10,000 individuals and is operating in 30 different states. According to Tamara Mandell, Biotility’s director, “the performance of BACE credential earners has encouraged hiring managers to rethink dated qualifications for technician-level employment. The BACE provides alternative hiring qualifications via mechanisms to validate valued competencies and skills, thereby increasing the talent pool for the industry and providing opportunities for careers to qualified job candidates.”

Micro-credentials and badges

Micro-credentials and badges take the concept of certification one step further into the 21st century by demonstrating competency in specific skills. The Bioscience Core Skills Institute (BCSI) was launched in 2021 with a focus on addressing the often-reported mismatch between industry workforce needs and the skills of talent entering the workforce. While certifications, credentials and degrees are terminal in nature, BCSI focuses on stackable badges that document individual competencies.

“BCSI recognizes that many high school and college students are already on track to life science careers and have gained valuable skills through courses, internships and research experiences. Documenting these skills throughout the trainee’s journey can serve to motivate and help identify talent before graduation,” says Angela Consani, BCSI’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Micro-credentials help students highlight the skills they have acquired and help companies search and identify the talent they need without resorting to one-size-fits-all degree requirements.”

In their first year of operation, BCSI has launched five micro-credentials — safety, documentation, quantitative skills, aseptic technique and small volume metrology; certified 26 evaluators; tested 158 people; and awarded 132 credentials.


Apprenticeships are also slowly gaining traction in U.S. pharma manufacturing. According to the DOL, “apprenticeship is an industry-driven, high-quality career pathway where employers can develop and prepare their future workforce, and individuals can obtain paid work experience, classroom instruction, and portable, nationally recognized credential.” 2

In Massachusetts, an apprenticeship program launched by MassBioEd in 2021 is quickly gaining traction. Through this program, MassBioEd partners with prospective employers to determine job requirements and recruit prospective apprentices. Candidates are selected by employers and receive four months of training at Northeastern University or Worcester Polytechnic Institute before transitioning into 12 months of on-the-job training.

MassBioEd launched the pilot apprenticeship program with 19 individuals in the program. These apprentices are now working at employer-partners including Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, among others. According to Germaine Palmer, MassBioEd’s assistant director of Apprenticeships, “All of our 2021 employers returned — and five new ones joined — to hire our apprentices last year. We also expanded our program regionally and tripled the number of apprentices trained.”

Neurodivergent populations

Neurodivergent populations represent a broad ranging group including individuals living with autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD and social anxiety disorders. Simply put, many such individuals remain an untapped source of talent. If we fall back to the familiar concept of a ‘talent pipeline,’ the problem is that many of these individuals are not even in the pipeline. A 2022 Deloitte Insights article noted that it is estimated that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.

Narrowing slightly, individuals with autism are the most underemployed of disability groups. There’s a well-known quote by autistic professor of special education, Stephen Shore, who said that “when you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The sheer diversity within the autism population itself often presents challenges for hiring managers and recruiters after predictability in hiring. Yet, while generalizing about this population can be difficult, the reality is many neurodiverse individuals thrive on routine, structure, rules and process. These are many of the hallmarks of manufacturing and supply chain work in our regulated industry.

However, many of these individuals share differences that can make the recruiting, interviewing and hiring process challenging without support. As noted in an article in Pharma Times, “There are three vital steps in a recruitment process: the job advertisement, the shortlist stage and the interview. Each stage should incorporate ‘reasonable adjustments’ to attract and not overlook neurodivergent candidates.”

Fundamentally, these reasonable adjustments rely on internal champions that are willing to drive organizational change, expand inclusion efforts and establish new pathways of opportunity for this population. Employers must be willing to step out of the box, look beyond traditional ways of doing things, and consider opportunities to embrace the new levels of workforce diversification that can come from consideration of neurodivergent populations.

Just outside of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Johnston Community College (JCC) is anchored between several biopharma giants including Novo Nordisk and Grifols. In 2020, the college launched its BioBlend initiative that equipped bioprocess technology and applied engineering degree-seeking students with the previously mentioned BioWork certificate in addition to certificates in DeltaV as well as maintenance and instrumentation. Now, the college is leveraging National Science Foundation funding to expand the program to neurodiverse students. As part of the pilot, JCC is partnering with the nationally recognized TEACCH Autism Program to help students on the autism spectrum gain new skills and navigate the transition from school to employment.

In summary, there is tremendous innovation happening within the academic and nonprofit community focused on growing the pharma and biopharma talent pipeline. However, as we’ll explore, the value proposition must be seen and felt by a diverse set of industry stakeholders to truly drive change.

Valuing novel pathways

Simply stated, industry hiring traditions still strongly favor degreed individuals. These traditional biases hinder the manufacturing sector’s ability to increase the intellectual diversity that’s critical for innovation. A 2021 report by TEConomy Partners and the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes (CSBI) drove this point home. As part of their research, they surveyed 194 pharma companies in the U.S. to understand the relative value of degreed versus non-degreed pathways into the industry. The CSBI data shows that a majority of companies strongly valued demonstrated-experience and a bachelor’s degree. That said, far fewer manufacturers value novel ways of demonstrating experience such as community college degrees, certificate programs and badges.

It’s not for a lack of trying. Many of the larger pharma manufacturers have made conscious decisions to formally drop degree requirements and adopt skills-first hiring philosophies. For example, companies such as Pfizer, Merck and Amgen have launched regional and/or national campaigns to attract non-degreed individuals into their manufacturing workforce.

However, systems change is often hindered by tradition, finger-pointing and preexisting biases. Organizations looking to truly solve some of these challenges must look holistically at the system-level as these internal players must be aligned. For example, consider the situation from the eyes of human resources, talent acquisition, and hiring managers. Human resources may build policy and rewrite job descriptions such to promote inclusive hiring. However, if hiring managers are not on board, biases remain. Conversely, savvy hiring managers may see local community colleges and nonprofit organizations as a solution to talent needs. Yet, if human resources and talent acquisition are not on board, such candidates may never be pushed through for interviews.

Transforming the talent pipelines

Increasing the recognition, utilization and value of some of the innovative approaches to talent development previously discussed hinges on partnership between employers and education and training providers.

Many community college degree and continuing education programs rely on advisory boards, local employer engagement and internal industry champions to ensure the programs meet industry needs, demonstrate relevancy, secure institutional support, and get their graduates hired. Yet, a 2022 report by the Harvard Business School cast a critical eye on the nature of industry–academic engagement. The report notes that “underpinning that low engagement is [industry’s] belief that talent can be readily found in the open or ‘spot’ market” as employers fall back on well-worn recruitment and hiring approaches.

Collectively, therefore, as a pharma community, it will be mission critical to consider and implement a few proactive strategies to deepen partnerships and begin driving systems change:

Identify and understand regional nontraditional pathway partners. Far too often, manufacturers are simply unaware of education and training resources within their local communities. Employers must investigate local community colleges, universities, and community-based organizations and begin forming a relationship.

Deepen engagement with external partners. Many employers have existing partnerships with local resources. However, relationships are often championed by individuals, resulting in a lack of organizational buy-in and increased risk due to the fragility of the relationship. Employers should look to expand partnerships to include cross-functional stakeholders including representation as appropriate from human resources, talent acquisition, technical managers and executive leadership.

Strengthen cross-functional communication internally. Surprisingly, many of the above-noted stakeholders don’t communicate within their own organizations. Employers must begin adopting strategies to better encourage cross-functional dialogue, build stronger internal partnerships, and begin to understand the different stakeholder perspectives.

Bottom line, transforming the pharma manufacturing hiring paradigm requires patience and effort to drive systems change. We must begin to recognize there are solutions. While novel education and training initiatives are adding value regionally, it’s through cross-functional communication, best practice sharing and further relationship development that the industry can begin driving more widespread transformation and adoption.

About the Author

John Balchunas | Workforce Director, NIIMBL