Skills Shortage in Life Sciences: Could this be part of the answer?


Are we doing enough to engage the younger generation? The truth is, that within the next ten years we could face a significant impact on the Life Sciences industry, threatening pharmaceutical development & the UK’s future as the leader in Life Sciences. With the high proportion of employees within the field, nearing the end of their working life, there is a lack of suitable candidates ready to take their place.


In November, we visited the 12th Annual bioprocessUK conference, where one of the main points of discussion was concern surrounding the rising skills shortage within the Life Sciences industry. This skills shortage has been apparent for a number of years; with interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects dwindling, it’s abundantly clear that more needs to be done to fully showcase what a career in these industries can offer. It is essential that investment be made into the development of students, to protect the Life Science industry growth. So the question remains, are we neglecting to engage with young people at an earlier age, to demonstrate the opportunities that are open to them?


Interestingly whilst enrolment in Medical & Biological Science degree courses has increased over the past 5 years (HESA 2014), this has not translated into an influx of quality applicants into biopharm and life sciences vacancies.

A report by Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), found that there is a lack of suitable candidates for high-skilled roles in the biopharmaceutical industry. The study was conducted with participants from 59 respected organisations within the field. It highlighted that there is a shortage of qualified applicants; the practical skills gap has become an increasing point of concern. With many new graduates having limited lab skills and lacking broader knowledge of the industry. ‘New graduates are available, but the level of their understanding against contemporary practices and industry perspectives requires a in-house training regime before they can be efficient’ [1].


The UK needs tens of thousands of extra graduates a year to protect the Life Science industry growth. It is evident that there are two key areas to focus on to achieve this.

  1. Investment in young people, encourage their interest in STEM subject.
  2. Equip graduates with core skills needed in a working Life Science environment.


Which is where we discovered the work of Nuffield Research Placements. The Nuffield Foundation is a charitable trust, which aims to encourage young people in the uptake of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at higher education level. Nourishing interest from an early age, with the introduction of research placements in established working environments for post-16 students. Taking place in universities, commercial companies, voluntary organisations and research institutions. The research placement provides students with hands on experience, with a unique opportunity to contribute to an ongoing study. Further producing a research report on their findings, similar to that produced at degree level.


The Nuffield Foundation highlights ‘The opportunity to spend 4-6 weeks in a research environment allows students to make more informed decisions about their future study and career pathways’


A-Level student, Amy Brennan, describes the experience as ‘interesting and insightful’, Amy completed her research placement at University of Manchester in July 2015, working in the genetics research lab. With a keen interest in biomedical science, she admits she entered the placement unsure if research was a career area that she would like to pursue. But following the experience, the insight gained cemented her interest and desire to progress further in the field.


Sophie Robinson (National Manager, Nuffield Research Placements) explains that this is not uncommon, with many applicants going on to study in the field of their research placement. The opportunity offers valuable experience, which has helped them to secure their university place. In it’s 20 years, The Nuffield Foundation has an illustrious list of previous graduates who have gone on to win awards & embarked upon successful careers in their chosen field. ‘There are many stories of students going back to the place where they did their Nuffield Research Placement for study or employment later in life’


The work of The Nuffield Foundation emphasizes how investment in young people really is the answer. We live in an age where everything is accessible to a point, other industries are widely reported on or glamourized by the media, but due to the nature of our industry this is not always possible, which is understandable. But this also means that the biopharmaceutical and life science are overlooked as a career prospect, but the truth is, once a young person is given the opportunity to get hands on experience at working in a lab environment, it opens a door to a stimulating & rewarding career.


During her placement, Amy’s focus of research was within a live research project ‘Identifying candidate genes in a family with Aicardi-Goutiéres Syndrome’, using exome analysis, she worked through a total of 115,740 variations to determine a specific candidate gene. She remarked that she was surprised at the responsibility and experience gained completing the placement, the opportunity to test blood samples alongside her mentor, was a task that many graduates may not have undertaken. Her participation has since proven largely beneficial in her second year of study, the research experience developing her knowledge of genetics far further to that of her peers. The opportunity to complete the placement has provided invaluable experience of the lab environment, with an understanding of procedures and processes.


Supported by Research Councils UK, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Wellcome Trust and the Microbiology Society. The Nuffield Foundation is not government funded, financially and politically independent; they are invested in improving social well-being and the future of young people. Not only does the Nuffield Foundation nourish interest at a young age. They provide the opportunity to gain practical work experience, which will largely benefit the candidates in their future studies and career. With 1000 students per year taking up such placements, could we see this increasing with a further investment in the future of STEM subjects in schools?


With difficulties in recruiting, as an industry, do we have a responsibility to help bridge the skills gap? We’d love to hear your thoughts.


If you would like to learn more about the Nuffield Placement scheme, or are interested in offering a placement opportunity, contact Nuffield Foundation directly at



[Photo credit: J-Wallace_Photography]

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