As post-pandemic lessons learned continue to emerge, supply chain improvements remain a top priority for global biomanufacturing and biotech leaders. Numerous challenges that surfaced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic made it clear—the biopharma industry was not as resilient as it should have been. From medicinal and drug supply shortages to lack of local biomanufacturing capacity, talent sourcing challenges and more—all such factors affected global populations, limiting their access to essential supplies, medicines and patient treatment.
Luckily, in-country investments in biomanufacturing capacity are making headway but also important for leaders to remember—biopharma’s access to certified talent and specialized skills must improve. According to the Global Biopharma Resilience Index, the industry’s weakest area is access to talent(1). One reason for this is not enough local education and training for both existing and new employees.
Without more growth in local education and training programs, employees may not have the right skills and expertise to implement increasingly complex process development and manufacturing operations. A skills gap can slow production or even lead to manufacturing errors. As such, consistent, professional education and training programs are key to train local talent, prevent skills gaps and secure the resilience of global biopharmaceutical supply chains for decades to come—pandemic or not.
Defining biopharma resilience
Many factors continue to challenge biopharma talent pools and local sourcing. New types of biologics continue to move into clinical trials and production (e.g., cell and gene therapies and mRNA vaccines). Multi-site manufacturing ramp-up is evident. Single-use technologies and modular bioprocessing continue to trend upward(2). As a result, employers must keep pace and find innovative, new approaches for talent sourcing and to fill specialized-skills gaps.
According to John Milne, training director at the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) in Dublin, Ireland, being resilient means bridging the skills gap through continuing education and additional job training. “One of the key pillars of good manufacturing practice is that you maintain a suitably trained staff,” he said. “You need an enthusiastic workforce who appreciate what they’re doing,” and are motivated by way of a top-down approach to continuously increase or build on their skills set.
Luckily, organizations like NIBRT and the National Horizons Centre (NHC) at Teesside University in the United Kingdom provide hands-on learning of biopharmaceutical techniques and processes. They can help to train and upskill an existing team, and they may also be able to help fill the talent pipeline through partnerships with universities and trade organizations.
Professor Vikki Rand, director of the NHC, agrees that training is essential to be able to attract and maintain well trained staff at all levels. “As training centers, we need to be agile to be able to respond to the sector needs,” she said. “Working directly with industry, we developed a range of courses to attract school leavers to a career in biopharma as well as upskill current staff(3).”
Pictured above: Cytiva's Fast Trak™ training and education of cell culture technology. The Fast Trak™ courses provide a tangible learning experience for process development and manufacturing scientists, relevant to everyday work.
A move toward virtual and blended learning
It’s clear that COVID-19 changed the way companies think about biopharma education and training. Global biopharma, like many industries, had to adapt in some cases to remote work life. For NIBRT, the launch of its online learning platform, the NIBRT Online Academy provides access to an online curriculum to complement its extensive onsite training options across all aspects of biopharma manufacturing(4).
“If you ask people what’s the best form of training, they will typically say on-the-job training closely followed by training in an institute or an establishment, that lends itself to a good simulation of what actually happens in industry,” said Milne. It’s blended learning— not strictly virtual—that is going to be the most successful, he confirmed.
Rand agreed that blended learning is going to be the most accessible. Hands-on training is essential but “digital training technology rapidly developed the accessibility and flexibility needed to rapidly evolve alongside those industries it serves,” she explained.
As a direct response to the skills gap in the United Kingdom, the NHC developed the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network (ATSTN). The NHC is one of three ATSTN national training centers—funded from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and from Innovate UK—and delivered through the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult organization.
Another factor to consider—hybrid and extended-reality learning models powerfully complement traditional training techniques. “Our trainers are drawn from operational roles in industry, and Cytiva’s VR hardware is immediately familiar and authentic to them,” Rand continued. “The adjustment period is very short, and interaction with the VR environment quickly becomes natural. Trainers use VR as a key tool to reinforce knowledge imparted in the classroom and through hands-on practical training, giving learners immersive experience with production-scale equipment in an environment where it is safe to make mistakes.”
Anne-Cécile Potmans, general manager of Fast Trak™ solutions and services at Cytiva, noted that a blend of hands-on and virtual training is particularly important when learning complex bioprocessing concepts and skills. “Company-wide e-learning offers baseline training, but VR offers a form of hands-on training that is amenable to keeping production up and running while also offering training on hardware,” she explained. “The operator can start to build muscle memory on the equipment without taking it out of the manufacturing line.”
Training opportunities help strengthen biopharma resilience
To keep a team fully trained and informed on current technologies requires employee engagement that is equally as important as time and investment from the employer. The company must take a proactive approach to understand their biomanufacturing resilience goals; only then can they decide on a training strategy for onboarding new employees and advanced education for current employees.
Cytiva’s global Fast Trak™ training and education centers are equipped with teaching labs and provide various access to application training in specialized bioprocessing techniques.
“As a biopharma company, you need to understand what your organizational goals are in the next three to five years and perform a gap assessment,” confirmed Potmans. “Are you going to go to new modalities? Are you going to have new operations with automation, with a digital approach to process development?”
NIBRT and the NHC offer both short- and long-term training modules that address the tradeoff employers face when determining if downtime on site is worth upskilling an employee on new equipment or processes.
Rand also confirmed that an ongoing dialogue with industry is critical to deliver state-of-the-art training that meets the requirements of end users. “Training organizations must work closely with industry to deliver for industry,” she explained. “Engagement with business leaders, suppliers and end users across the sector is critical. That dialogue ensures that our training content reflects current best practices and allows us to accurately anticipate future needs.”
Also important to acknowledge are the specific areas that are more difficult to keep current as far as skills and training. Some of these are cGMP and process development, according to Milne. Moreover, “manufacturing associates can be trained but you can begin to see pressure points [for] more specialized roles where a deeper knowledge is required,” he said.
Potmans agreed, citing more specialized roles within upstream and downstream process development, as well as those utilizing digital and automation skills. “Sourcing talent is not a new issue,” she said. “Now it’s just more difficult due to pipeline diversification and new technologies.”
This makes measuring the effectiveness of continuing education even more critical.
“Measuring biopharma education and training efficacy and impact is not always easy, which is why developing a strategy based on assessment is key,” Potmans continued. “Companies can incorporate specific questions into training plans such as, ‘Have we seen any performance improvement for the employee? Have we seen less batch failure or deviation? Have we seen faster process development? Have we seen higher associate engagement?’”
As the biopharma industry evolves, it will be up to biotech companies working together with students and future scientists to maintain education and training flexibility, and learn new processes and modalities for advanced patient needs. The result? Stronger, global supply chain resilience that helps secure biopharma’s future.
Watch the video to gain more insights into how Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre and other leaders are helping to build biopharma supply chain resilience through blended learning. Visit us online for additional biomanufacturing resilience insights and resources.
Optimize process development with Cytiva Fast Trak™ services.
- Cytiva and Financial Times Marketing Services. Biopharma 2021: the resilience rethink. Published 2021. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- BioPlan Associates, Inc. 17th Annual Report and Survey of Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Capacity and Production. https://www.bioplanassociates.com/17th/. Published April 2020. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- National Horizons Centre (NHC). NHC Continuing Professional Development (CPD) training website. https://www.tees.ac.uk/nhc/cpd.cfm. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT). NIBRT Online Academy website. https://noa.nibrt.ie/learn. Accessed June 13, 2022.