Upskilling and reskilling become cornerstones for life sciences

Our Belgian life sciences ecosystem is experiencing great growth in research and clinical studies as well as in production. At the same time, the demand for new talent in the sector is particularly high. Upskilling and reskilling can help alleviate that need.

Barbara Christiaens

Thanks to the production of 700 million COVID-19 vaccines and the export thereof, our country has strongly highlighted its expertise in health and innovation in recent times. Our strong Belgian life sciences ecosystem combines the presence of large pharmaceutical companies with new disciplines pioneering personalised healthcare. Developments in biotechnology as well as in cell and gene therapy, for example, are generating substantial additional investments. In terms of exports of biopharmaceutical products, Belgium now occupies an enviable position, with a total value of EUR 56 billion. The sector employs 40,000 people (and many more indirectly) this year.

1,000 vacancies

However, its success has also immediately launched a tough search for talent. A survey by the newspaper De Tijd revealed that more than 1,000 vacancies are currently open at the major Belgian pharmaceutical companies. A joint charter, signed by the federal government, the academic world, and the health and biotech industry in early November, aims to make our country Europe’s health and biotech valley. To realise this ambition, the charter also notes that it will be crucial to be able to continuously inject sufficient talent into the ecosystem.

Train someone or continue searching?

No matter how attractive the sector is, we cannot expect new talent to flood in from schools automatically over the next few years. There are definitely advantages to making training programmes more specific, but employee upskilling and reskilling will become even more important in relation. Lab technicians, engineers, or biostatisticians are already relatively rare and innovation in, for example, cell and gene therapy, means that additional expertise is needed. The training that employees receive when they join the company or when they seek a new challenge in the company deserves much more attention. Biopharmaceutical companies will increasingly find themselves in a situation where their dream candidate isn’t in Belgium or abroad. In those cases, it is wiser to choose a profile with a solid foundation and then teach them the new expertise on the job. Taking six months to bring a new employee up to standard is preferable to an additional uncertain search of six months or perhaps longer.

The best of both worlds

Upskilling and reskilling are not new, but the life sciences could benefit from an innovative approach to them. For example, cooperation among biopharmaceutical companies or partnerships with academia will be necessary in order to retrain interesting profiles in a targeted way. It is extremely important to find a good connection between these worlds, and between the (health)care providers and the companies supplying the (health)care. Both basic research and industry are in great need of talent and cooperation will continue to be very important.

Do not underestimate soft skills

If we look at the content of upskilling and reskilling in life sciences, it is striking that the importance of the so-called soft skills is increasing. In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, we see a big cultural difference between multinationals and start-ups. The focus during recruitment – and during reskilling or upskilling – is still very much on technical skills. Companies should not underestimate the importance of involvement in the corporate culture. A new employee with the right technical skills but no match for the culture is a short-term choice. If the soft skills don’t match the commitment, DNA, and culture, you risk losing the talent again. The current war for talent has only increased that risk. It is tempting, after a long search, to recruit a candidate who has the right technical skills without carrying out an assessment. Yet, an assessment is precisely the thing that can provide crucial lessons. In the case of a start-up, for example, it can be very useful to find out how someone deals with setbacks. Is the candidate able, as it often happens in a start-up, to square their shoulders and get back to work with the right entrepreneurial spirit?

Quantum leap

The question of what type of expertise a company attracts is linked to a thorough analysis of the organisation. Who are the experts and are they capable of leading a large team? This creates a bridge between recruiting the right talents and setting up coaching programmes to equip existing employees with the right management skills. It sounds obvious, but in a sector full of fast-growing companies, it’s still a challenge to integrate these processes efficiently. A company that has been in existence for less than two years, but is ready to make a quantum leap, has every interest in recruiting properly. Because ultimately, that is the ambition in a strongly growing sector like life sciences: the people you bring on board today must become the strongholds of the future.

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