Essential and technical skills will help Canada’s bio-economy reach its full potential

In part two of our five-part series, we highlight a recent discussion that BioTalent Canada President and CEO Rob Henderson had with industry experts about the importance of essential and technical skills among existing employees and incoming talent within Canada’s bio-economy.

This discussion, moderated by Rob, took place as part of the Stem Cell Network Conference Panel Discussion. He was joined on by Senior Vice President of Human Resources at STEMCELL Technologies Helen Sheridan, Edward Short, and the Director of the Work-Learn Institute at the University of Waterloo Dr. Judene Pretti.

This conversation came on the heels of an exciting announcement from BioTalent Canada about the launch of the highly specialized Essential Skills Fundamentals and Technical Skills Fundamentals training courses. The skills courses were designed with the help of industry professionals to help close the noted skills gap in the Canadian bio-economy.

Canada’s post-secondary institutions are some of the best in the world. They prepare students as well as any other country prepares its graduates. And work-integrated learning (WIL) programs, like BioTalent Canada’s Student Work Placement Program (SWPP), connect biotech employers to young talent. However, there’s only so much one can learn in a classroom.

Imagine the advantage a company would have with available professional development tools that would ensure new hires and existing employees could onboard quickly and produce immediately.

Canada has the potential to be a bio-economy world leader within the next five years. A major factor that will determine if we reach that goal is the availability of highly trained, world-class talent. An organization needs employees with razor-sharp essential skills and honed technical skills to complement those basics.


Canada’s post-secondary institutions do a great job of academically preparing graduates, but there can be a “break in” period of up to two years to acclimate graduates to the workforce. It takes a specialized training to understand how to translate the scientific knowledge into technical execution. Lab-readiness, if you will.

“We experience talent coming into the business with excellent foundations of science, (but) we also need them to have technology skills so they can do advanced analytics very quickly,” says Helen Sheridan, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at STEMCELL Technologies. “Sometimes that might mean that they need coding, business intelligence, or bioinformatics skills.”

Over the last several years, the lines between IT and biotech have become blurred with the emergence of e-health and artificial intelligence. And those lines will become even more blurred as organizations ramp up their digital transformations.

“Charles River Laboratories has kicked off the digital transformation of its business,” explains Edward Short, Human Resources Lead for Charles River Laboratories’ Safety Assessment Business. “So, as we onboard new talent (it’s essential) they can deliver results as fast as possible so our clients can make go- no-go decisions on the next steps of their research.”

You can see how important it is to equip employees with the most advanced tools and training to get them lab-ready as soon as possible as we operate in the new remote world that COVID-19 has created. Employees with finely tuned essential skills are, quite literally, essential to a company’s success.

Pipelines of talent

Canada’s post-secondary education institutions are some of the best in the world at preparing graduates for transition to work life. Life sciences and bio-tech-related programs, in particular, rely heavily on WIL to help build large pipelines of job-ready talent.

The panel for this discussion was ideal in that both sides of supply-and-demand were represented. Helen Sheridan and Edward Short represented “demand” while Dr. Judene Pretti represented academia—or the supply. She felt affirmed by the statements of Sheridan and Short.

“It was affirming to hear that re-skilling and up-skilling is going to be a function of these workplaces,” says Director of the Work-Learn Institute at the University of Waterloo Dr. Judene Pretti. “They’re going to need to incorporate technological agility into all aspects of work, not just for those who have been trained in a technical discipline.”

Pretti says that the needs of industry are well aligned with the research that the University of Waterloo have performed, as well as the work they have been doing.

“Consider the investments the federal government has made in SWPP to ensure that more students have access to those workplace experiences prior to graduation,” continued Pretti. “I think that’s going to go a long way (towards preparing students for graduation).”

But Pretti did acknowledge that a four-month placement is not a very long time to get up to speed. The short time frame does encourage co-op participants to really immerse themselves, but they could definitely benefit from additional training.

Which is why early access to the training programs, available to the public April 1, are free to BioTalent Canada’s wage subsidy participants. The value of essential skills and specialized technical skills designed for the rigors of today’s biotech work environments is immeasurable.

Check out the rest of the panel

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This article covers only a small portion of the hour-long panel discussion. To learn more about what the experts feel about importance of essential and technical skills in Canada’s bio-economy, check out the full panel discussion. We encourage you to leave comments and to start your own conversations.


Funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Adult Learning, Literacy and Essential Skills Program.