Brains, not just buildings, key to expanding domestic life sciences

Research points to serious labour shortage in Canadian bio-manufacturing

First published for the Toronto Star on July 2nd, 2021

By Rob Henderson

Canadians are rightfully pleased that our country is now among the world leaders in COVID-19 vaccination rates. At the same time, however, our excitement is tempered by the recognition that we have been so dependent on foreign producers to make it happen.

Among the many eye-opening impacts of the global pandemic, Canada’s inability to develop and produce vaccines domestically has been particularly concerning. This followed similar consternation earlier in the pandemic about deficiencies in PPE production. There appears to be widespread agreement that this needs to change – a cross-country understanding that a pandemic could well happen again, and Canada needs to be better prepared to respond within our own borders if/when it does.

The upshot of this revelation so far has been positive, including government commitments to biosciences infrastructure and a renewed interest in investment in bio-manufacturing plants, laboratories and other domestic production expansion.

As all of this building hopefully proceeds, let’s also remember the most important component of a robust life sciences sector: smart people. We must consider the human side, the scientists and business support to work in the new and expanded infrastructure. Bio-manufacturing facilities won’t produce much without skilled people in them.

Right now, we are facing a serious shortage of these bio-economy minds, which will only become more pronounced if we don’t take collective action quickly.

BioTalent Canada was aware of this pending shortage even 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.

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.

BioTalent Canada has been spearheading an in-depth national Labour Market Information Study since 2018. The full report on supply and demand will be released this fall, but there is some data I’d like to share now. By the end of this decade, the study estimates Canada will need 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 expansion we know is imperative.

While the numbers are large in and of themselves, in context they are even more alarming. The research determined that current levels of available labour supply in bio-manufacturing and production represent less than 25% of actual demand. This pattern is forecast to continue through to 2029 and beyond unless we take steps to recruit and train more bio-manufacturing employees.

This isn’t solely about scientists. When we think about the bio-economy we usually picture people in lab coats. They’re important, of course, but let’s not forget the “economy” part of bio-economy. Homegrown talent in manufacturing, business development, commercialization, marketing and promotion, logistics, communications and leadership are all critical for Canada to successfully be a major player in the bio-health sector – and to be self-sufficient in the face of another health crisis.

Some potential solutions have emerged, such as better deployment of underemployed youth and newcomers to Canada, transferring and training this available talent in the bio-sciences. Enhancing skills development programs, targeting investments and increasing business synergies are also among the ideas being put forward.

Above all, we need to work together – government, business and academia – to create an innovative, cohesive approach.

We look forward to releasing the full market research results this fall, quantifying supply and demand challenges across all sub-sectors of the bio-economy. For now, let the bio-manufacturing data highlight brain-power as an urgent priority.

It’s great that Canadians are getting vaccine shots. Let’s take action now so that next time it’s Canadians who are calling the shots.

Rob Henderson is President and CEO of BioTalent Canada.