The Life Sciences industry has had a significant part to play in the Irish economic recovery, which is currently underway. There are very positive indications that this growth will continue to 2020 and beyond.
The industry in Ireland comprises of pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device facilities engaged in activities from early stage R&D to manufacturing and delivery of finished products to market.
Today the sector accounts for 50% of exports, which is a significant achievement when you consider that the first pharmaceutical companies opened in Ireland in the 1960s.
The industry has changed in that time from producing bulk active ingredients for export, to today where finished products are shipped directly to market. The Irish life science facilities have continuously added more complex and higher-value added activities, with some of the most technically challenging biotechnology processes being designed, developed and scaled up in manufacturing facilities.
This technical capability has led to the decision by multiple biotechnology companies to invest over €8bn to expand or build new biotech facilities.
Ireland now has a strong cluster of biopharma companies which offer future economies of scale and has a good regional spread. The industry is embedded in the economy and is not driven by just the tax environment. The skills available are just one part of the Irish competitive advantage to the sector.
There are concerns that the current rapid expansion in the biotech sector has created a skills’ shortages, which may threaten Irish industry competitiveness and attractiveness.
Earlier this year, an Expert Group on Future Skills Need released a review on the skills needs of the biopharmaceutical industry (small and large molecule manufacturing and biopharmaceutical- related services) in Ireland up to 2020. This group from across all sectors of the industry in association with the Department of jobs, Enterprise and Innovation produced a major report looking at the industry drivers, needs, roadblocks and opportunities.
This report gives a clear road map to the skills needs of the biotechnology sector and highlights opportunities and challenges for the sector.
Expert skills group report
Some of the key findings of the review are:
n 86% of graduates entering biopharma have Level 8 qualifications or above (Level 8 = honours degree).
n Almost 75% of graduates entering the sector are from a science, maths or engineering background.
n It is anticipated that Biologics manufacturing employment will grow from 6,700 in 2015 to 11,700 by 2020 (5,000 new jobs)
n It is expected that 8,400 potential job openings will be created (between new and replacement demand) in the pharma and biotech sector.
The report identified a significant skills shortage driven not only by the industry capacity expansion, but also by the changing technology which is driving a need for continuous change. The industry expansions underway are heavily automated — driving demand for automation engineers and engineers with experience in related manufacturing IT systems.
As facilities become more automated the teams required for their development, operation and support grows. The burgeoning emphasis on knowledge management and the exponential growth in manufacturing and product/ process data from systems such as MES, PAT and serialisation has given rise to new roles in areas such as data analytics and statistics as well as an increased regulatory focus on data integrity.
These new technologies are arriving in tandem with many other industry innovations and regulatory changes.
The introduction of continuous manufacturing as well as the risk and science- based approach of regulators has increased the requirement for in-depth process knowledge and the individuals with that experience and knowledge.
Irish facilities have been at the vanguard of the adoption and development of many of these systems, both domestically and globally, which has driven the growth in Irish vendor firms working in this area. The reports says this is in turn has added to demand for those with experience in systems development and implementation.
All these technology changes and investment in the life-sciences industry offers an opportunity for science, engineering, maths, business and supply chain professionals. However the Irish biopharmaceutical industry not only needs to increase the size of its talent pool, but we also need to deepen the knowledge and capabilities of the existing talent pool.
While a focus needs to be placed on introducing more professionals into the sector through graduate programs and industry transition programs (such as those run by NIBRT), no less effort should be put into deepening the available pool of talent.
n Kieran Coughlan is managing director of Life Science Consultants, which provides specialist solutions to blue chip life science firms across Europe.
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