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Building and retaining your talent: connecting education with the workplace


Declan McCormack

Head of School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dublin Institute of Technology

How integrating the university campus with the biopharma workplace could address the skills and education gap; a view from Dublin Institute of Technology.

‘The availability of skills and talent is seen by the industry as a key prerequisite for future competitiveness, investment and employment. There is a need for a collaborative approach to ensure the adequacy of the supply of biopharma skills and talent,’ says the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.

Educators can partner with industry to produce a large pool of talent for the sector.

By bringing the university to the workplace, educators can partner with industry to produce a large pool of talent for the sector across all academic grades, from level seven graduates for technician and operator roles, to level nine MSc graduates with Quality Assurance and Validation expertise, right up to level ten PhD students, who are at the forefront of their discipline.

DIT has a long history of producing career-oriented graduates with skills and competences tailored to the Pharma and BioPharma sectors. Courses have constantly adapted and evolved in response to the ever-changing lifesciences landscape which contributed €67bn in exports in 2017.

Over the last decade, €10bn has been committed to the expanding biopharma and medtech sector in Ireland.

It is apparent that a major challenge facing the industry is the development of sufficient numbers of graduates who are literate with scientific, engineering and problem-solving skills, to meet demand. Last month alone over 1,000 new jobs were announced by Edwards Lifesciences (600), MSD (350) and Takeda (70). Graduates are required across a range of education levels to fill the many roles in production, quality assurance, process engineering, scale up, data analytics, combination devices, validation, drug development and clinical trials.

What are the benefits of workplace-integrated learning?

To develop capacity for the sector one of the innovative approaches being undertaken by higher education institutions is to augment traditional college-based students with new cohorts from non-traditional routes.

A key finding in the recent trends in the biopharma manufacturing survey report from NIBRT in December 2017 was that the most effective training was that provided on-the-job (90 per cent). Such a workplace-based approach offers many advantages in that graduates from ancillary sectors can be cross-trained into the industry, industry-based employees can be upskilled thus aiding retention and building corporate knowledge and skills, while new expertise can be developed in close collaboration with researchers, industry and professional bodies, and regulators for the sector.

How can education be embedded in the workplace?

In a ground-breaking partnership, DIT and GetReskilled have worked closely with employers and biopharma industry representatives to develop a blended model of learning whereby students can take programmes from their homes or workplaces, supported through their learning experience by academic lecturers, tutors and company-based mentors. In the last five years over 500 graduates equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to operate in production and quality technical roles have qualified from these programmes.

A similar blended model for MSc education, specifically targeted at the skills gap in pharmaceutical validation has also been developed. Johnson and Johnson Campus Ireland have partnered with DIT to develop a centre of excellence in validation, connecting the academic institution directly to the workplace. Employees across various divisions such as Vistakon, Janssen Biologics, and DePuy were enrolled in the online MSc in pharmaceutical validation technology programme, supported by management mentors from their respective sites.

This model has provided career development opportunities for those individuals and encourages sharing of best practice and knowledge across sites through facilitated discussion boards and workshops.

Workplace-based PhDs

Possibly the most exciting development in connecting education with the workplace has been the opportunity for senior personnel and leaders to capture their knowledge and expertise through enrolment on a PhD programme with research outputs disseminated through conferences and peer-reviewed publications.

This route to a PhD brings together the knowledge and industry focus of the individual with the direct academic support and guidance of the institution to tackle major challenges for the sector such as quality risk management, knowledge management and process analytical technology.

Creative solutions are required if we are to bridge the education and skills gap. The Irish government’s commitment to the establishment of technological universities provides an obvious platform for the growth of such campus workplace models for higher education and will ensure that Ireland can continue to grow successfully in the life sciences sector.

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