Closing the Skills Gap: Innovative Training Models Revolutionize Biopharma Manufacturing Workforce

In the dynamic world of biopharmaceutical manufacturing, the hunger for skilled professionals is surging ahead, but the talent pool is struggling to keep pace. This demand isn’t limited to technicians alone; scientists and engineers are also feeling the squeeze. As manufacturers race to expand their capacity, the need for knowledge and experience has never been more pressing. The key to success lies in swiftly mastering the art of efficiently launching and operating new facilities.

John Balchunas, the workforce director at the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) at the University of Delaware, stressed the paramount importance of robust training infrastructure. According to Balchunas, grasping the intricacies of biopharmaceutical manufacturing operations hinges on hands-on technical skills and a deep understanding of the physical and logistical nuances of a highly regulated environment.

A compelling report from June 2023, examining workforce trends in the life sciences, conducted by TEConomy Partners for the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes (CSBI), highlighted a widespread need for a workforce capable of navigating the ever-evolving landscape of digital transformation.

Balchunas emphasized the necessity for newcomers to the industry to possess a foundational understanding of automation and the transformative power of digitalization. This knowledge isn’t limited to a select few; it’s crucial for technicians, operators, scientists, and engineers alike. The ability to analyze, interpret data, and engage with automation and digitalization experts within their organizations is increasingly becoming a make-or-break skillset in this thriving sector.

Hands-On Training

In a bold move to bridge the skills gap in biopharmaceuticals, engineering consultancy Sequence Inc. has unveiled a cutting-edge training center that redefines hands-on learning. This state-of-the-art facility, designed to nurture the next generation of biopharma talent, provides a digitalized mock manufacturing environment—a dynamic playground for new recruits.

Here, an entire end-to-end manufacturing process comes to life, complete with operable equipment that offers a holistic understanding of facility integration. According to Justin Cook, Vice President of Talent Management at Sequence, trainees delve into networking, programming principles, and the art of contextualizing data. Understanding which data to collect for actionable insights is a core skillset in the digital era, and Sequence’s program is custom-tailored to cultivate this cross-functional mindset, essential for crafting a robust digital strategy.

But the magic truly happens through hands-on training. Cook stresses the irreplaceable value of working with real equipment, where theory meets practical application. There’s no substitute for physically handling components, witnessing the materials of construction, and attuning your ear to the symphony of pumps and motors, whether functioning seamlessly or grappling with issues.

The results speak volumes. Sequence has witnessed a remarkable transformation in its trainees, who rapidly gain knowledge and confidence in a condensed timeframe. As Cook puts it, “Under normal circumstances, it can take years to accumulate exposure to various equipment and scenarios needed to build expertise. But we don’t have years.”

This innovative facility not only accelerates the training timeline but also widens the talent pool. Sequence can now tap into a diverse range of candidates, including fresh graduates with limited experience. It’s a game-changer in addressing the industry’s pressing workforce shortage.

In the ever-evolving world of biopharma, Sequence Inc. is pioneering a brighter future by equipping its trainees with the skills, confidence, and hands-on experience needed to thrive.

Beyond the Classroom: Blending the Physical and Virtual

In the heart of innovation-rich North Carolina, the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) at North Carolina State University is leading the charge in nurturing the biopharma talent of tomorrow. BTEC’s mission? To tackle the growing shortage of biopharmaceutical scientists and engineers—a challenge partly fueled by the rapid expansion of companies like Eli Lilly and Fujifilm Diosynth in the region.

Jennifer Pancorbo, Director of Industry Programs and Research at BTEC, highlights their dynamic approach to training. The programs at BTEC strike a balance between classroom learning and hands-on experience with state-of-the-art equipment. But that’s not all. BTEC has harnessed the power of online courses to reach a wider audience, making learning accessible to those who can’t attend in person. Pancorbo explains that virtual courses are a boon for existing employees seeking continuous training, offering the flexibility to learn at their own pace, anytime, anywhere.

Yet, while digital tools show promise, nothing quite matches the tangible experience of hands-on learning. BTEC is pushing boundaries with the concept of a digital twin—a virtual replica of equipment like bioreactors or entire processes. Students can experiment, manipulate variables, and visualize outcomes in this digital realm, bridging the gap between virtual and physical learning.

Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) tools are also carving out a niche in the industry. John Balchunas, Workforce Director at the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), highlights the recent showcase of AR/VR technologies at NIIMBL’s annual meeting. Attendees had a firsthand look at how these technologies are reshaping education, professional development, and on-the-job training. The future holds exciting potential for these evolving tools, promising to redefine the learning experience.

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