Life Sciences Must Embrace New, Flexible Workflows To Grow

Alp Perahya

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can help build companies' talent pools and lead to more agile workforce management.

The last year has been transformational for the life sciences industry. Thrust into the spotlight due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector responded by ramping up production of PPE, testing kits and ventilators while simultaneously developing highly effective coronavirus vaccines in record time, boosting public opinion in the process. Yet the global pandemic has also exposed pre-existing workforce issues in the life sciences sector, like the growing STEM talent shortage, slow adoption of automation and a broad lack of workforce agility that must be addressed if the industry is to remain at the forefront of innovation over the next decade and beyond.

Life science talent leaders deserve their share of credit for the many accomplishments the sector achieved in the last year. From maintaining business continuity by shifting employees to remote work when feasible, while simultaneously implementing safety measures for those who needed to continue to work onsite, talent agility has been critical. In fact, Randstad Sourceright’s 2021 Talent Trends research found that employers in the life sciences sector said that the role of HR transformed more significantly than in any other industry in 2020. Yet despite this transformation, life science businesses are still struggling to address key aspects of talent strategy and technology adoption that will be key to help them meet continuously evolving business demands. 

The biggest issue is the difficulty in finding and attracting top talent who possess the skills life science companies need most. A recent Department of Defense report found that the U.S. lags behind Russia and China when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Other experts have argued that the problem isn’t a shortage of STEM graduates in the U.S., but that the most necessary, in-demand skills change so rapidly that neither universities nor employers are keeping pace with identifying and teaching individuals the skills they need most. In fact, over half of life sciences human capital and C-suite leaders surveyed in Talent Trends said that talent scarcity has had the biggest impact on their business.

This problem is not new. Two years ago, even before the pandemic, experts were bemoaning how a skills shortage posed a threat to innovation in the life sciences, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning and manufacturing automation. The lack of competencies in these areas is concerning, and this skill shortage is likely why only 13 percent of life sciences talent acquisition leaders surveyed by Randstad Sourceright said they have increased their usage of automation and robotics in the last year.

So how can life science organizations address these issues? First, the sector must change the way it approaches flexible work arrangements. While most industries forecast an increase in their virtual workforces by the end of the year, life sciences companies only anticipate a slight uptick in remote work in 2021, even though 72 percent of life sciences leaders surveyed said they believed flexible working arrangements were critical to talent attraction.

By embracing virtual and more flexible work models, including contingent talent, the life sciences sector will not only dramatically increase their available talent pool beyond their local geographic area, but they will avoid missing out on highly skilled workers who could be snapped up by competitors who embrace flexibility more fully.

Additionally, the Talent Trends research found that the life sciences sector also lags behind other industries surveyed when it comes to the overall talent experience, an area that must be improved if the sector wants to compete for, engage with and ultimately retain the best candidates.

One way to address this issue that would help companies both from a workforce and business perspective is to invest more aggressively in upskilling and reskilling opportunities for employees. On the talent side, helping workers improve their skills and competencies not only helps companies retain top talent, but also allows businesses to attract workers who want to work for an organization that provides growth opportunities and invests in their future. From a business perspective, offering robust reskilling and upskilling opportunities allows organizations to close their skills gaps and ensures their workforce is armed with the competencies they know will be most needed in the short and long-term.

As evidenced by their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that the life sciences industry is one of the most cutting-edge sectors in the world. Yet the industry also has an opportunity to adapt their approach to talent, particularly in regard to addressing looming skills shortages, adopting key technological advances and implementing workforce flexibility practices that could accelerate their ability to innovate. It is critical that C-suite and talent leaders in the life sciences sector apply the lessons learned during the pandemic and embrace a more flexible, holistic talent approach that will help build their talent pool and skills pipeline, integrate critical emerging technologies and embrace a more agile approach to their workforce that will continue to facilitate innovation now and in the future.

Alp Perahya, Executive Vice President, Randstad Sourceright, North America