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Science In Industry: New Hope For Enhancing U.K. Skills

by Alex Scott
February 17, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 7


In another initiative designed to meet industry’s skills shortfall, life sciences companies and chemical firms have come together in a newly developing Science Industry Partnership (SIP) to build scientific talent across the sector in the U.K. Led by GlaxoSmithKline and featuring about 200 firms including Actavis, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, and SABIC, SIP will learn in the coming weeks whether it has been successful in securing $52 million in public funding for a variety of skills enhancement programs across the industry.

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Science In Industry: New Hope For Enhancing U.K. Skills

SIP’s vision is to develop a new “skills system” starting with high school students through to graduate and postgraduate students. “It’s all a matter of developing tomorrow’s scientists today,” says Nigel Brooksby, chair of the Life Sciences Skills Strategy Board, a division of Cogent, the U.K. skills body for the science industry.

One of SIP’s key goals is to enhance apprenticeships. Members of SIP have signed up as so-called Trailblazers in an employer-led new apprenticeship program designed to fill skills gaps from the lab to the factory, particularly with the aim of training apprentices to be at the technician level. Members of SIP plan to create more than 1,000 apprenticeships across science industries based on the Trailblazers concept.

As part of the initiative, employers take responsibility for ensuring that the apprenticeship program provides individuals with skills that the sector needs. They are setting apprenticeship standards for the level of skill, knowledge, and competency required to perform a specific job well.

The introduction of the program comes after a period that has seen apprenticeships decline in number and where, particularly in life sciences, firms have found it difficult to recruit individuals skilled in certain fields.

“Technician level is where we really need trainees,” says John Holton, strategy director for Cogent. U.K. companies have to keep refilling the pipeline with newly trained technicians because of the amount of poaching that goes on by competitor companies, he says.

The new program aims to emulate the success of other industries in attracting talent. “Rolls-Royce is considerably oversubscribed for each apprenticeship place,” Holton says. “Their apprenticeships are very prestigious, very highly valued. That’s what we want in the science sector.”

Even before SIP knows whether it has secured its government funding, GSK is committed to recruiting 140 apprentices this year, a hike of 27% from previous years. Some apprentices will work in labs in fields such as microbiology, biopharmaceutical technology, process chemistry, and analytical chemistry. Andrew P. Witty, GSK’s chief executive officer, asserted in a recent video that he is “an extreme enthusiast for the whole apprenticeship concept.”

Just as the apprentice Trailblazers program gets under way, however, it may be threatened. Germany, which is facing a shortfall of its own candidates, has launched a $200 million drive to entice young workers from Britain via all-expenses-paid apprenticeships. Even with U.K. government funding for the program, U.K. science companies may find the best apprentices taken from under their noses.


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