Phil Jones — New life pumped into UK pharma

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Pharmaceutical Technology Europe PTE

Jones explains how to save UK pharma.

With the UK pharma sector set to get its own dedicated skills body, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe interviews Phil Jones, chief executive of The National Skills Academy Process Industries, which has been instrumental in establishing the new body.

Q1: The UK is facing a massive skills shortage in the pharmaceutical sector. What factors have led to this?
Demographic legacy is a key factor. Older manufacturing workers at NVQ levels 2 and 3 who have been employed in a very stable employment environment for their entire career because of 'blockbuster drugs' are approaching retirement. We predict that the recruitment and retention of younger workers will be insufficient for their replacement.

The sector also has an image problem among the potential future labour force, and the knock on effect of this is a lack of adequate academic and practical skills among school leavers and graduates applying for jobs in the sector.

There is also a lack of specialist scientific skills in the UK labour population, as reported by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Q2: Is the situation similar in other European countries?
The anecdotal evidence suggests that some countries such as those in Eastern Europe, have a better educated labour forces as well as more attractive labour costs. In contrast, in major western countries, such as Germany, there are increasing problems with levels 2 and 3 manufacturing skills because of the same demographics as the UK.

Q3: How was the decision to establish a national skills body for the UK pharmaceutical sector reached?
A number of pharmaceutical companies, as well as chemical and polymer companies, have worked with Cogent Sector Skills Council to establish a National Skills Academy Process Industries (NSAPI). These process industries were enthusiastic to support and fund the body and helped identify numerous benefits.

To clarify the pharma sector strategic skills challenges, Cogent and NSAPI organized a workshop for employers and key stakeholders; this output will form the basis of an industry action plan. A key objective was to develop a 'joined up' approach to skills from the plant operator through to graduate job roles and to grow — not duplicate — any ongoing initiatives.

Q4: Six areas have been identified as priorities. Can you tell us more about these areas and why they are a priority?
The six priority areas were identified during the workshop as follows:Risk-based assessment


This is now the focus of regulatory authorities. There is a need to improve the understanding of regulatory compliance as staff need to be able to assess risks at all stages of pharma product development to ensure maximum quality.

Careers in the pharmaceutical industry, attraction and retention of employees

Career progression for sector employees needs to be made clear as R&D/discovery and sales and marketing currently taking precedence over manufacturing. The number of science-subject graduates deciding to take employment in the manufacturing sector as opposed to finance, law or consultancy needs in the pharma industry is not seen as an attractive career option.

Innovation in pharmaceutical operations

Regulatory compliance is used as an excuse to avoid innovation in manufacturing processes, but new processes are needed for areas that are becoming dominant in the sector, such as biotechnology, for example. Western countries, such as the UK, must be innovative to compete with lower cost economies.

Management and leadership in a global industry

Management and leadership skills in the pharma sector are reputedly not as robust as in more competitive manufacturing environments, such as automotive or commodity chemicals. Managers are also now responsible for a global supply chain in a highly regulated industry, which requires more training.

Graduates and higher level provision

Graduates lack a broad range of skills; for example, biochemistry graduates often lack an understanding of statistics and process engineering, which requires post-graduate training courses.

STEM education and support for young people

The number of school children in the UK taking science subjects in college and university is too low, and the scientific quality of school leavers and graduates is being questioned by employers.

Q5: What impact will the body have on the UK pharma sector as a whole?
The Skills Academy will coordinate the implementation of solutions and deliver real change by providing employers with a forum to discuss skills solutions, as well as enabling access to solutions outside traditional in-house approaches to training and identifying public funding for training (where available). Through the Gold Standard — - a national framework for continuous professional development setting out the skills required for world class performance in key job roles in the process industries — we will help employers to identify transferable skills and gain nationally recognized qualifications for a world-class labour force.

Q6: The establishment of the body is still in its early stages. What is the next step?
The next step is to establish sub-groups to meet prior to a follow-up summit in the autumn.

Industrial placements and career pathways groups in the UK are already active; foundation degrees is a Higher Education Funding Council for England funded project, graduate development has begun and innovation in production, industrial bio, and management and leadership are being defined.

Solutions will include foundation degrees, industry placements, graduate training and the Continuous Professional Development (CPD). We aim for greater utilization of the non-graduate population — especially apprenticeships and laboratory technicians.

The sub groups will aid the transition of the NSAPI into full effectiveness for the pharma sector.

Q7: When do you hope to have the body fully up and running?
Work groups are being set-up and should be fully active after the follow-up summit in autumn this year.

Q8: How can UK employers make sure they take advantage of the benefits offered by the new skills body?
They can become members of the Skills Academy by joining online at They can also make a contribution by:

  • participating in the follow-up summit.
  • engaging in the Oracle project (gathering primary LMI).
  • taking part in training via the Gold Standards for manufacturing job roles and apprenticeships.
  • Becoming involved in the development of Foundation Degrees as way to upskill the workforce.

We also encourage employers in the pharma sector to make full use of the Skills Academy to identify training, accredited providers and access public funding for eligible training.