Apprenticeships in pharma are on the up. Here’s how to make sure they stay that way

28 Jun 2023, 0:00

Apprenticeships are a powerful tool for bridging the skills gap in the pharmaceutical sector – essential if we are to keep one of the UK’s most innovative industries globally competitive.

With constant advancements in technology and medical research, the skills required within the industry are always changing and evolving. The demand for skilled workers has never been greater, and apprenticeships provide a win-win solution.

They allow employers to access a skills development pipeline across a wide range of roles, including those where priority skills gaps have been identified. At the same time apprentices get an opportunity to ‘earn while they learn’ and further their journey in a fulfilling career.

Traditionally, apprenticeships have been associated with skilled blue-collar or artisanal jobs. However, in recent years, the apprenticeship model has been gaining traction in many professional services roles and in the science and technology sectors, including pharmaceuticals.

Through a combination of on-the-job training and classroom learning, they provide a unique and flexible opportunity for people to develop relevant skills while directly contributing to the workforce.

Research by the ABPI has shown that the number of apprentices hosted by the biopharmaceutical industry in 2022 had increased year on year since 2015 (287.5 per cent) over that period. And encouragingly, apprenticeships are being delivered from level 2 to level 7 across a range of disciplines, and with increasing flexibility on duration.

This highlights increasing sector employer confidence in using apprenticeships, although to develop a skilled workforce for the future it is crucial we align skills supply with employer demand to secure have a talent pipeline suitable for the industry. To do this, we need closer collaboration between industry, educational institutions and policymakers.

More pharmaceutical standards

First, there must be consultation to identify the specific skills and competencies that the pharmaceutical industry needs, and where the skills gaps exist. The ABPI’s latest skills gap report analyses the skills gaps and trends within the UK pharmaceutical industry based on survey data from over 30 different employers.

The report includes past examples of using the apprenticeship route to take action on identified skills gaps, including the development of the Level 7 Bioinformatics standard, and of the Level 7 Clinical Pharmacology Scientist standard which launched in September last year.

So we know that actively involving employers in the design and delivery of apprenticeship programs is our best bet to achieve the outcomes we need. It ensures that teaching plans align with industry needs and that apprentices are actively prepared for the roles and challenges they will face in their careers.

What we need now is to replicate that work for more of the sub-sectors within the pharmaceutical industry, and to target efforts where there are the greatest shortages first. We also need clearer pathways to those Level 7 apprenticeships, so that younger people can understand more about  their route into the industry earlier.

More flexibility

Next, the skills sector must be agile and responsive to the evolving demands of the industry. That means that any new and existing apprenticeship frameworks and qualifications must be flexible enough to quickly incorporate emerging technologies and research breakthroughs.

Employers would also like to see the government do more to increase flexibility in how the apprenticeship levy can be used to ensure that businesses of all sizes can benefit.

And if apprenticeships are going to deliver on their promise, they need to recognise the greater flexibility of today’s workforce too. We need a clearer and more coherent careers guidance system, and its focus can’t be only on young people as has traditionally been the case. Adults increasingly need careers guidance too, and we need to reach those sections of the population who tend not to see the sector as accessible to them.

Addressing the skills gap in biopharmaceuticals is vital for the UK’s continuing place as a sector leader and for our continued economic prosperity. We welcome the Department for Education and the Office for Life Sciences’ support for employers to tailor apprenticeship delivery to meet the needs of employers and their apprentices’.

There is a lot more work to be done to ensure our system competes with the best.

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