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Weak Worker Skills Threaten Sustainability Of Canada’s Bio Clusters, Report Contends

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Canada’s biotechnology cluster cannot sustain, much less surpass, the 77-percent growth rate it recorded over the past 20 years without addressing a shortage of worker skills that goes beyond the basics of working in a laboratory, according to a new report by Canada’s non-profit, federally funded biotechnology workforce-development agency.
 
In Splicing the Data: The Critical Role of Human Resources in Canada’s Bio-Economy, available here, BioTalent Canada urges Canada’s academic, business, and government sectors to craft long-term efforts to train high school- and college-aged students for the jobs being created by the nation’s 532 biotech companies.
 
Those solutions must not only prepare students for the laboratory, but for the broader challenges of nurturing a bio business, BioTalent Canada concluded.
 
“It requires educational, training and professional supports be provided to scientists to help them excel not only as researchers and specialists but also as entrepreneurs, managers and businesspeople,” the report stated.
 
Issues including a shortage of skilled/experienced workers topped the list of human resources challenges that Canadian biotechs can expect to see over the next three to five years, according to the 320 companies that responded to BioTalent Canada’s biotech HR survey. Around 1,154 companies received the questionnaire.
 
Skills issues were cited by 45.9 percent of respondents, followed by financial, economic, or regulatory concerns (35 percent), then non-financial recruitment or retention issues (30 percent).
 
BioTalent Canada considers the survey a benchmark for future HR surveys; the next is set to take place in two to three years.
 
The greater the concentration of biotech employers, the report found, the larger the percentages of companies reporting shortages of skilled workers. The report showed the largest percentages were in Canada’s Prairie region (44.4 percent) and West region (40 percent), which include Calgary and Vancouver, respectively, followed by the Ontario region (32.4 percent), which includes Toronto. The Quebec and Atlantic regions, which house smaller biotech clusters, consequently drew fewer companies complaining of skills shortages (23.8 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively).
 
BioRegion News spoke last week with Colette Rivet, executive director of BioTalent Canada, about the findings of the survey and the broader challenge of addressing the industry’s human-resources needs.
 

 
What has been the response to the report from industry and government?
 
The response has been very positive; the industry is quite interested to read about themselves, and see where they fit in with everything. For the government itself, it has been very helpful for them to understand more about the sector. The next steps are outlined in the report: We want to fund a way of being more like a broker between the workforce and the companies. We’re trying to initiate the systematic changes that need to be done, while helping with some specific tools for industry itself.
 
What sparked the report? Was there a shortage of a specific skill, or any departure by a company, that explains the timing of the report?
 
It isn’t a specific one. It’s a general skill shortage, and when we’re saying skill shortages, we’re talking about people who are already employees of the companies, and we talk about unfilled positions, those are people that are looking for people.
 
What skills in particular are in the shortest supply?
 
There are quite a few that were way up there [in the percentages of responses by companies surveyed]: Knowledge of the industry, management leadership, business development, marketing and communications, partnership networking, and reading and writing skills related to the comprehension of good manufacturing practice — that was really a shocker for me.
 
It’s important, having all the right skills for these companies, because they are very small companies, and you therefore have to wear many hats. And you need to have very flexible and versatile skills. If you’re in research, you still potentially will have to do other things within the company as well.
 
The skills in short supply you cited are all beyond specific scientific techniques traditionally taught in biotech programs. How troubling is that finding?
 
It is troubling. That’s why our organization is working very hard to try and focus on the human resources of skills development in this industry. The bio-economy is going to be the next platform for Canada and for the word, actually, I would say, just like IT [information technology] used to be. And if we don’t have the right skills, we have to wake up now, and we have to make sure we coordinate that and have those skills available for the companies to make it.
 
At least three studies have been published since 2005 that highlight various shortcomings and challenges in Canada’s biotech workforce training efforts. Given the consensus on the need for improvement, why have businesses and other life sciences employers found it difficult to address the issue?
 
I guess what it is, is the broadness of it all. We need to reach our universities, our educational institutions from high school onward, and getting them looking at their curricula, to change them properly, so that [students] are job-ready when they graduate from the colleges, universities, or high schools. We are also trying to get industry involved as well, and that’s been successful through our organization. Our board of directors is made up from industry.
 
Because they have so few resources, both financial and human resources, it’s been a little difficult in terms of the coordination [of efforts]. We’re trying to get a critical mass through our organization. But you can imagine the regions are also trying to reach out to these companies, so there’s a big demand from industry that we’re trying to address.
 
How will this be worked out, ultimately? Does your group have to forge a coalition with the regional groups? Do companies have to engage the regional groups?
 
The associations across the country … are membership driven, and they are also looking at policies, they look at lobbying, etc. Our organization isn’t that kind at all. We’re non-profit, we’re federally funded. And what we need to do is to be able to get everybody at the same table, [get] the provinces and territories helping us coordinate that work across the country, because education is funded through the provinces. Federal funding wouldn’t be influencing that, so we have to get everybody at the table to get these changes made. Industry works through us, so that you don’t need as many people. And if we didn’t have all these different efforts going on that are duplicating work, then they could actually focus on one group and be able to proceed with it. 
 
Bringing industry, academia, and government to the table is one thing. Once they are there, what changes in either government policy or employer practice are needed as part of the proactive effort to improve worker skills that the report recommends?
 
It’s a matter of governments looking at the whole curriculum. It’s the look at academia that we have to have. Companies are trying their best — if you saw the number of employees they have, they’re trying their best to manage through all of this. And really, what they’re trying to do is survive given the economy. To find the right talent, they have to go outside of Canada, with people who have the experience and the education that is required. So the [companies] that are making it are getting those talented people they need or those skills they need. Otherwise, they’re looking at Canada to provide them with those skills.
 
We need to have things like curriculum changes. We’ve worked with the Toronto District School Board, developing a biotech curriculum for grade 12. That has been a real big help.
 
Is biotech instruction required in Toronto?
 
It is not a requirement. It’s an elective program. I think it should be mandatory to keep science and math throughout high school. A lot of students are not taking science courses these days. So we have to go through each of the provinces and make sure that their curricula require science and math. We need to also make sure that students stay in science for longer than they are now. And then we also need to look at the curricula for colleges and universities, and make sure they have all the skills that are required to be job-ready. And that isn’t only science. It’s also management, it’s also leadership, it’s communications, it’s team-playing — all those soft skills.
 
You can’t expect industry to be able to work with each region like that. It’s just too huge. So we’re trying to coordinate that for them, so that we can get them all on the same page at the same time.
 
The report pinpointed small and medium-sized companies of six to 20 employees as being most likely to say they experience shortages of skills among workers. What solutions are being developed for those smaller employers?
 
We are focused mainly on our small and medium-sized companies. For instance, we are developing an HR tool kit that they can actually just download, and it will have best practices, policies and procedures for human resources — recruiting and retaining people; different techniques for interviewing people to find out if they have the skills needed.
 
We also fund through the federal government a career focus program. We subsidize one-third of the wages of a person if a company does the other two-thirds, and we’ll do that for up to a year. We’ve run this program for about nine years now. One hundred percent of the people who complete it get jobs. They’re getting their experience out on the job when they just graduated from college or university. That’s one criterion: They have to have graduated and not worked in biotech before. It’s a job placement program; they get paid.
 
When will the HR tool kit be available for businesses?
 
It is being developed. It should be available in September.
 
We’re also developing competency profiles so [workers] can identify what skills they need in certain positions. We’re developing those with industry. And also, that will be helpful to the government, because they have classification systems that are very outdated, and they use those classification systems to do their stats for Statistics Canada [Statistics Canada is the country’s national statistics agency, which compiles a monthly labor force survey —Ed.] That really needs to be updated.
 
We’re also working on models of trying to assess skills, and that will be applicable, actually, to all people in the workforce. Right now, we are focusing on internationally educated professionals, and seeing if we can find a quick way of assessing their skills so that we could integrate them into our workforce. We also have the Sanofi-aventis “BioGENEius” bio talent challenge, which is a high school competition, and is international now with Australia and the US. We’ve been finding that for over nine years now. It’s a really great way of bringing science awareness to high school students. We’re doing the [Labour Market Information] report. We have courses as well. We have PetriDish, which is a free job bank so people can put their CVs on there and employers can put their positions on there.
 
These are the kind of very practical tools we’re trying to help the industry with. The big systematic approach required now is looking at the needs of the people who are graduating from our universities and their educational institutions.
 
The report says lack of skills training is the fourth most-cited reason why employees change jobs, after personal reasons, the finding of employment outside the biotech industry, and ‘not a good fit with others.’ If a shortage of worker skills is a challenge for the industry in Canada, why would it not be one of the top three reasons?
 
Because, I guess, they don’t realize it. You do see, though, that some of them are enrolled in training and education programs to upgrade their skills, so some people see that when they leave. But most of our companies are actually training people as well — 88 percent of them are paying totally for the upgrading of the skills of their staffs. Maybe the ones that are leaving are the ones that don’t realize they don’t have the skills, and the ones who are staying are getting their skills upgraded.
 
On the outsourcing of positions, it seems to take place with the highest-skill positions — such as those with R&D, legal, and regulatory responsibilities. Is it fair to say that’s where the skill gaps are highest?
 
Yes, I would say it’s probably the higher end. When it comes to intellectual property, mostly lawyers are doing that, so that’s probably why it’s outsourced. Many of those companies cannot afford lawyers on their payroll. Also, regulatory affairs, there’s really nobody training people in that, so it’s people with experience who [companies] usually hire.
 
The report speaks of having more involvement from the internationally educated professionals you mentioned earlier, as well as from aboriginal peoples. Why are both populations underrepresented in Canada’s biotech workforce?
 
What the federal government is saying is, IEPs are going to be the majority of new entrants [into the workforce] in 2012, which isn’t that far away. If you look at our report, we have quite a good percentage of IEPs in our companies right now. However, I would say that those people are mostly from the US or Europe.
 
Meanwhile, we have all these other internationally educated professionals here in Canada who are not working in their field. We’re trying to find ways of making each other aware of each other, and be able to get them integrated [into the workforce] quickly. If you look at our older report, Recognizing Talent, the two main barriers to integration are language, as well as integration into the work environment, getting used to working in Canada. So we’ve developed some assessment tools for them to assess themselves with. But we find that what we need to do is finding ways of connecting the employers with the actual members of the workforce. This is another group we should be addressing.
 
The aboriginal population here in Canada is really the group of people who are growing in population, and are much younger than the rest of the population in Canada. So we’re trying to find ways of getting them into our workforce as well. As you can imagine, in the rest of the population in Canada, we’re seeing smaller numbers going into science and math. Aboriginal people go into science and math even less.
 
Does Canada’s growing population of IEPs reflect the failure of the US to increase its annual number of H1-B visas for émigrés seeking to fill jobs in the life sciences and other industries? [BRN, July 16, 2007; May 21, 2007]
 
I’m not sure about that.
 
Is this a Canadian legacy of past discrimination or cultural bias against science?
 
I don’t believe so. We have a report, Bridging the Divide: Creating opportunities for the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada to enter the bio-economy, on our web site where we did some research on that. It looks more like they’re just not made aware of science as much. They just don’t go into science. And so we have to find ways of getting them more aware of it.
 
We’re trying to find ways of developing tool kits to send to areas where there’s a larger population of the aboriginals, and just get students more exposed to science, and making that connection for them between science and doing better with their community in terms of the environment and health.

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