Developing Canada’s vaccine infrastructure for future pandemics will depend on addressing bio-economy labour shortages


Previously published in the Hill Times on September 13, 2021–  After having to depend exclusively on international partners for COVID-19 vaccines, it’s encouraging to see Canada investing heavily in infrastructure projects to build our vaccine independence for future pandemics.

Canada has been fortunate to secure significant COVID-19 vaccine supplies from other countries, but the high-stakes global race to land them highlighted the importance of developing long-term capacity to create and manufacture made-in-Canada vaccines.

We need to be better prepared to control our fate not only against COVID-19 but also to protect the health and safety of Canadians against future diseases and viruses that may threaten our security.

Biosciences infrastructure – bio-manufacturing plants, laboratories and other domestic production facilities – are critical pieces of the puzzle to rebuild our domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and fuel our bio-economy. But buildings alone aren’t the full solution.
We need highly skilled people — and lots of them — to work inside those labs and manufacturing facilities. We need to create a strong bio-economy talent pipeline to ensure we have a qualified workforce ready to take on the complex job of developing vaccines and new medicines.

Unfortunately, we’re already starting from behind.

The evidence indicates Canada’s bio-economy is facing a severe shortage of labour. The much-needed push to get made-in-Canada vaccines flowing will only exacerbate the problem unless we move quickly to address it.

BioTalent Canada has been drawing attention to this pending shortage since before the pandemic hit. Our role is to bridge the gap between job-ready talent and bio-health sector employers. We support the people behind life-changing science, as a trusted resource for labour market intelligence in the bio-economy.

We’ve been spearheading an in-depth national Labour Market Information Study since 2018. Our full report on supply and demand will be released in October, but I can share some preliminary data. By the end of this decade, the study estimates Canada will need an additional 5,160 employees in bio-health manufacturing and production. Related functions of distribution/logistics and quality control/assurance – getting the products to market – will need an additional 3,780 employees.

These projections are based on current demand trends, even without the much-need expansion that will push demand even higher.

The stark reality is that unless Canada takes steps now to ensure a steady pipeline of bio-economy talent, we will not be ready for the next crisis.

So, what can we do to reverse the trend?

Our research – started pre-pandemic and updated throughout the changing landscape – indicates an urgent need to ramp up skills development and market supports, to feed the pipeline of talent required for those crucial bio-manufacturing jobs.

We must diversify recruitment to reach a broader talent pool, including recent immigrants, internationally educated professionals, Indigenous workers, and workers with disabilities. The bio-economy is woefully lagging behind many other industries in their employment rates for these groups. We need to up our diversity and inclusion game.

We also need to increase awareness of bio-economy career opportunities among students and youth to help them understand that they can find high-paying, fulfilling, and rewarding careers in this emerging field.

Finally, our bio-economy needs plenty of people for non-scientific roles, such as front-line processors, salespeople, marketers, human resources specialists, and administrators. Therefore, it will also be important for bio-economy employers to widen the recruitment net to include non-industry talent that can be up-skilled or re-skilled to transition seamlessly into front-line and management positions within the bio-economy.

The challenges of developing made-in-Canada vaccines may sound daunting, but Canada has done it before. We have a strong track record of innovation and vaccine development, including helping bring the polio vaccine to the world in the 1950s. Our broad hope is that this enhanced training capacity can also help relieve deficits in other subsectors: bio-industrial, agri-bio, medical device, and stem cell research, all of which can benefit from Canada’s enhanced training capacity.

Provided the key players – government, business, and academia – work closely together, there’s no reason why we can’t regain our vaccine independence and re-establish our leadership role in vaccine production.


Rob Henderson, President and CEO of BioTalent Canada.