Report: Pharmaceutical industry needs more digital talent

  • New research shows strong progress in addressing STEM skills gaps and shortages across the UK pharmaceutical industry, with improvements in core scientific areas and skills.
  • Industry now needs more experienced staff, and more staff with digital skills to ensure the future success of UK life sciences
  • For the first time, the pharmaceutical industry makes explicit commitments to help boost skills and urges government actions to match

A report published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has identified the skills and training conditions needed for the future success of UK life sciences. 

We want to help people step into digital jobs and plug the skills gaps in our economy. Alex Burghart, Minister for Skills, Department for Education

George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has called the report a “blueprint for how Government and industry can work together to grow the Life Sciences talent base.”

Informed by interviews and surveys with pharmaceutical companies – who employ 63,000 highly skilled people across the UK – ‘Bridging the Skills Gap in the Biopharmaceutical Industry,’ finds a mixed picture for the sector’s skill and job shortages. 

The analysis, conducted by Public First, shows that general skills gaps have narrowed, with rapid improvements in areas such as biological and chemical science. Gaps in core skills – scientific knowledge, communication and problem-solving – have also improved. 

However, some areas of concern remain. The ‘top priority' areas to fill gaps identified by pharmaceutical companies included informatics, computational, mathematical, and statistical skills with shortages reported in five of the seven top priorities. 

The findings show the sector needs more experienced staff with strong digital skills which are required for sophisticated research and development, as well as advanced medicines manufacturing, with companies highlighting the need to urgently address the gaps in this area.

Across most subject areas, such as biological, chemical, clinical, and computational disciplines, there are also concerns about the quantity of candidates in the pipeline (rather than the quality) and companies’ ability to recruit experienced staff. 

The Association has closely monitored the skills and talent pipeline within the industry over several years. This latest study comes at a critical time for life sciences in the UK, as the government looks to improve future success through its Vision for the sector. 

For the first time, the report puts forward four explicit commitments by the sector to help improve the picture for skills, with the industry promising to:

  • Support universities and raise awareness of the sector as an attractive employer to boost digital skills. 
  • Launch an updated, dedicated platform of free, high quality, up-to-date STEM resources supporting all key stages for UK curricula to support long-term attainment and drive achievement.
  • Conduct further research into recruitment and retention of experienced staff and why this is proving a challenge for the sector.
  • Continue to address industry identified areas for action for securing a sustainable skills pipeline, as part of the Futures Group formed as part of Sector Deal 2.

Andrew Croydon, Skills & Education Policy Director at the Association, said:

"The pandemic is being fought by skilled experts, scientists and researchers, whose innovations and breakthroughs are supporting NHS staff on the front line. 

"Having the right system in place to teach and upskill passionate individuals to pursue science careers is vital if we are to be ready for the next one.

"Our report shows that policies to narrow skills gaps are working, but that the skills of the future in digital and computing are emerging as an area of concern.

"We’re making industry commitments today to address that trend and have put forward recommendations for the government to match – so that we can make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines."

Minister for Skills at the Department for Education, Alex Burghart, said:

"Delivering a skilled workforce which meets the needs of employers in key sectors such as digital technology remains a cornerstone of our skills agenda.

"It is fantastic to see our skills pipeline delivering a workforce equipped with the scientific training needed to support sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry.

"We want to help people step into digital jobs and plug the skills gaps in our economy. That’s why we are investing millions to fund digital Skills Bootcamps, rolling out new T Levels in digital and boosting apprenticeship opportunities."

Alongside industry commitments, the Association also calls on the government to work with the sector to: 

  • Use the newly funded Institutes of Technology to prioritise the application of digital skills in the life sciences sector. 
  • Stimulate the adoption of emerging skills to meet demand by extending pilot schemes, such as those focused on the Skills Value Chain approach and the acquisition of wider research skills. 
  • Ensure early career researchers are central to broader skills policy, to support the number of new candidates in the pipeline. 
  • Create a pipeline of UK and international scientific researchers through increasing the provision of life science apprenticeship training across levels 2-7, through better industry coordinated engagement with life sciences employers. 
  • Attract experienced expertise by supporting visa routes for global life sciences talent, including reviewing the attractiveness of funding for globally mobile researchers.
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Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023

The pharmaceutical industry accounts for almost one-fifth of total R&D expenditure, the most out of any other sector. The success of the UK’s life sciences sector is critical to the government’s ambitions for the future of the UK economy. 

This was recognised by the government in the recent Spending Review and in the Life Sciences Vision, which provided a blueprint for how the UK can become a ‘global hub’ for life sciences. 

The ABPI has closely monitored the skills and talent pipeline within the industry over several years, and this latest study comes at a critical time for life sciences in the UK. 

Our recent skills gap analysis, Bridging the Skills Gap in the Biopharmaceutical Industry, sets out the actions needed to safeguard the skills pipeline to ensure that UK life sciences remain a global leader.

The ABPI exists to make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines. We represent companies of all sizes who invest in discovering the medicines of the future. 

Our members supply cutting edge treatments that improve and save the lives of millions of people. We work in partnership with Government and the NHS so patients can get new treatments faster and the NHS can plan how much it spends on medicines. Every day, we partner with organisations in the life sciences community and beyond to transform lives across the UK.