B.C. life sciences grapple with talent gap challenges

Life sciences industry, academia look to tackle skilled labour shortage head-on

AdMare Bionnovations’ Vancouver innovation centre is based at the University of British Columbia | Submitted

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's Life Sciences issue.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought global interest and investment to life sciences – and major contributions towards vaccine research have vaulted B.C.’s life sciences sector into the spotlight. But fame can be a double-edged sword, industry officials say. 

The increased attention and investment have also driven a demand for growth – and Canada’s tight market for skilled labour, especially for professionals who are adept at scientific research and scaling up a fledgling business, is now challenging the entire sector.

“We have both a quantity and a quality issue,” says Wendy Hurlburt, president and CEO of Life Sciences BC (LSBC). “There are a lot of jobs being created in the last couple of years … and in British Columbia, we are blessed with producing talent with very strong technical skills. We are very strong at cross-disciplinary science. But it’s when you get into the commercialization of it where the challenge really emerges.

“You have a gap as it relates to finding talent that can take an innovation and scale it – C-suite executive talent, people with regulatory experience. The gap is: How do you turn this knowledge into a thriving business?”

One company that has seen this shortage first-hand is adMare Bionnovations, which runs an innovation centre in Vancouver aimed squarely at partnering with entrepreneurs and innovators to build life sciences companies, ecosystems and talent in the market.

Anie Perrault, vice-president of public affairs at adMare, says the issue is clear across Canada (the company also runs another innovation centre in Montreal). She notes the company has added significantly to its workforce recently – growing from about 80 to 90 staff members to just short of 130 within a year’s time.

“No doubt, we are in an employee market right now,” Perrault says, adding the advent of remote work-from-home solutions since the start of the pandemic has meant that Canadian firms are now in open competition for skilled labour with companies from other geographical locations. 

“All the life sciences companies are seeking strong talent. The difference is, with adMare, we are looking for people beyond research.… We have corporate services, finance, legal, HR, communications – all the people who surround companies to make them grow.

“One of our advantages is that we offer a lot of flexibility, particularly when it comes to labs,” she says. “Team members can choose between Montreal and Vancouver. It gives PhD students an opportunity to go east or west, and that’s very attractive.”

Not all companies will be so lucky, however. A BioTalent Canada report in 2021 showed the country will add 65,000 new jobs in the sector by 2029 – and many of these jobs that need to be filled will be in B.C., says Simon Fraser University president and vice-chancellor Joy Johnson.

Johnson, who is also a professor of health sciences, notes that academia is keenly aware of the situation and has started efforts to support the life sciences sector with talent in an increasingly urgent manner. Various levels of government are working with schools to boost the number of seats available in B.C. for post-secondary students interested in tech, she says.

Another initiative is increasing the prevalence of “upskilling” – or existing graduates who return to school or expand their studies to develop more capacity to work in the positions being created by industry demand.

“There’s a lot of conversations happening around micro-credentialing,” Johnson says. “So I think it’s promising that there are solutions on the horizon. But we are going to have to move fast if we are going to retain these growing companies in B.C., to ensure they are able to continue to grow and scale-up here.”

Another piece of the puzzle, says LSBC’s Hurlburt, is knowing exactly what the labour demand in the sector looks like, so that stakeholders can collectively look at the data and set priorities based on need. 

That is why, she says, the organization announced in July the launch of a labour market intelligence study aimed at providing “a better understanding of the jobs and skills employers are looking for.” It is slated to take 11 months to complete. The study will include five-year demand and supply forecasts, an assessment of factors such as the progress of skills training and recommendations for “sector-led strategies.”

“We have been tracking how much certain companies have been growing,” Hurlburt says. “And we really wanted to do a deeper dive. There have been some national reports on labour markets, but we wanted to take a focus on B.C. specifically – not only for projections of hiring over the next three-to-five years, but also for knowing what skills will be in the highest demand.

“We need to make sure we have the people – not only in quantity, but also in terms of skilled labour that can actually fill these jobs that are being created.”

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's Life Sciences issue under the headline 'Talent development.' Check out BIV’s full digital magazine archive here.