‘Massive demand’ for B.C. biotech talent putting pressure on sector

Vancouver's life sciences sector faces as many as 5,000 job vacancies by 2029

BioTalent Canada estimates the country will be short 65,000 workers in life sciences sector by 2029 | Photo: Luiz Alvarez

“The pipeline for talent is running low,” Rob Henderson, CEO of BioTalent Canada, stated bluntly during a Friday panel focused on B.C.’s life sciences sector.

A 2021 labour market report from BioTalent Canada projects a national shortage of 65,000 such workers by 2029. And about 5,000 of those unoccupied jobs will be in Vancouver, according to Henderson.

“Companies are going to have to become very, very creative in terms of being able to put forward their business objectives,” he said during Life Sciences B.C.’s third annual Career Connect Day.

Henderson is urging industry to get better at promoting itself to students and new immigrants coming into the country as it tries to navigate labour shortages amid significant growth.

“Even without the shortage of staff, we would have been facing recruitment issues because we're constantly growing,” said bio-statistician Darby Thompson, president of Burnaby-based Emmes Company LLC.

He said the recent widespread adoption of remote working has made recruitment easier, as his company no longer needs to convince workers from outside Metro Vancouver to move to a city known for its high cost of living.

“But that said, lots of people are looking to other global organizations now that they may not be constrained to be working in Vancouver,” Thompson added. “The way we're addressing that, again, is to try and appeal to new blood coming to the industry. We have lots of entry-level positions where we can bring people in [and] train them.”

He admitted he was once part of the brain drain of highly skilled Canadian talent heading south of the border after leaving school when “there weren't the opportunities in Canada that there are now,” Thompson said.

“I would refute the fact that you would have to move to the States [now] to get those kinds of jobs.”

As of 2019, the Metro Vancouver was home to 1,300 organizations and 16,000 workers that BioTalent Canada considers part of the “bio-economy.” (A recent report from the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade pegs the current employment numbers at about 18,000 workers).

Since the 2019 numbers were calculated, B.C. has seen activity in the sector ramp up with the likes of AbCellera Biologics Inc. (Nasdaq:ABCL) and Aurinia Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Nasdaq:AUPH) raising hundreds of millions of dollars after going public in 2020.

But panellists throughout the day acknowledged lack of diversity has been dogging the industry as it seeks to expand.

Women make up 34% of workers in the bio-economy, according to BioTalent’s report.

“Other equity-seeking groups have less representation: visible minorities make up an average of 20% of the bio-economy workforce, IEPs [internationally educated professionals] 17% and recent immigrants 9%. Indigenous workers and workers with disabilities make up an average of just 1% of the bio-economy workforce each,” the report stated.

Diane Gardiner, senior vice-president of human resources and administration at Sierra Oncology Inc. (Nasdaq:SRRA), said it was time for industry to “get serious about it.”

“The demand really means that there's an opportunity to think about things differently,” she said, referring to initiatives such as rethinking child care.

“The massive demand for talent is really putting a lot of pressure on growing and developing people, and having … a job ready to scale and take on new opportunities very rapidly.”

Scott Phillips, CEO of Victoria-based StarFish Medical (StarFish Product Engineering Inc.), said the demand for talent is likely to serve as impetus enough to ensure industry becomes more inclusive.

“The issue goes beyond XX and XY chromosomes,” said Zymeworks Inc. (NYSE:ZYME) co-founder Ali Tehrani.

“We need to ask ourselves, why is it typically our industry has been dominated by one subset of society?”

Describing it as the elephant in the room, Tehrani said it’s a “frightening thought” many women feel they could be held back in their professional life if they also wish to start a family.

“We’ve always talked about the point of view of what makes a great employee. Now I think we need to turn the equation and the question to what makes a great employer?” he said.

Zymeworks announced this week it was laying off 25% of its workforce  about 100 employees — days after Ken Galbraith replaced Tehrani as CEO.