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Skills Shortage in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Skills Shortage in the Pharmaceutical Industry


The Clinical & Contract Research Association (CCRA) recognises that, as a sector, we are currently facing a number of challenges, not the least of these being that the UK Pharmaceutical industry is heading for a very serious staff shortage which will push up costs with concomitant loss of competitiveness. Global Contract Research Organisations are getting over the problem, in the short term, by offering large signing–on inducements and poaching experienced staff from competitors.
Editor: PharmiWeb Editor Last Updated: 21-Feb-2023

The Clinical & Contract Research Association (CCRA) recognises that, as a sector, we are currently facing a number of challenges, not the least of these being that the UK Pharmaceutical industry is heading for a very serious staff shortage which will push up costs with concomitant loss of competitiveness.  Global Contract Research Organisations are getting over the problem, in the short term, by offering large signing–on inducements and poaching experienced staff from competitors.  This practice, once a rarity, now appears to be a common practice these days. Given the need for experience, and the immediacy of the challenge, a clear focus on equipping candidates with the right skills is crucial going forward. Further research into the causes of this concern will be necessary to ensure that the industry can effectively close this skills gap.

As a sector, we must work to raise the profile of these, high-level and exciting, careers and make potential candidates aware of the many opportunities available to them. Both Industry and the Government must use maximum endeavours to attract new talent.  

The pandemic undoubtedly boosted the pharma industry’s reputation, however it is a highly competitive market for talent coming out of university.  2021 saw record investment in the UK’s pharma and biotech sectors, estimated to be a 60% increase on the back of the country’s success in sequencing the COVID genome, developing vaccines, and expediting clinical trials.

Life science is expected to remain a growth industry across the coming decade, fuelled further by the Government’s aim of the UK being recognised as a world leader in disease research, and accelerating the development of new treatments, medical technology and digital tools. It is a laudable ambition, but difficult to achieve without the right skills.

The future looks bleak unless we continually replenish the talent pool of experienced staff.  This can only be done by beginning extensive training programmes now. The development of degree apprenticeships has been significant and positive. The government has tried to help by offering Clinical Trials Specialist apprenticeships but very few companies are taking these up.

Due to the complexity of the issue, a national collaborative effort is needed from a range of stakeholders:

Pharmaceutical companies

Why do companies believe that new entrants have to have 2 years’ experience?  They will say that students coming out of universities are not fit for purpose.   Academic education tends to be separated into faculties, which produces graduates with skills that are often poorly aligned with industry needs. 

The answer seems to lie in apprenticeships where the students have on the job training and the cost to companies can be offset by using their levy entitlement.   The ABPI identified that we need to increase the provision of life science apprenticeship training across level 2-7, through better industry co-ordinated engagement with pharmaceutical companies.

In general, the clinical research sector has been slow to capitalise on the possibility of apprenticeships. A lot of the funds set aside for apprenticeships (£2.8 billion) have not been used. The clinical research sector needs to make more use of this in order to have the people available with the necessary skills to manage the trials of the future. Importantly, the apprenticeships are also available to mature staff allowing them to acquire new skills.

Academic Institutions

To be industry ready, candidates need to have a range of interdisciplinary skills which allow them to work across different teams and in different areas. Such skills gaps, together with lack of application of knowledge or real life training, are limiting the productivity of graduates in the sector.

Undoubtedly, university degrees are not the only way into the pharmaceutical industry. Recent research from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) indicates that 78% of these students are not planning to enter into higher education immediately, and were interested in an apprenticeship, with the primary attractions being the varied ways of learning and the ability to earn and learn simultaneously.

UCAS also revealed that around 87 universities now offer higher and degree apprenticeships. In 2019/20, there were 271,890 apprenticeship starts - 66,730 of these were higher apprenticeships at either Bachelors (Level 6) or Masters (Level 7) degree level.  However, it is costly to set up apprenticeships (staff costs and mentoring) and, although very well supported initially as it fulfils an immediate need, continued student numbers are not guaranteed making investment not cost effective.

We know university is where many students decide on their future career, and there has never been a better time to advertise the benefits – both for the individual and for society – of a career in pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals.


Are students aware of the roles within the pharma industry?  Are more students aware of apprenticeships?  As a sector we need to build on the positive image as a result of the development of the COVID vaccine and produce promotional material for career pages of academic institutions at all levels to raise the profile of the industry. There appears to be interest and demand for apprenticeships amongst students.

Health Education England (HEE)

Departments are overwhelmed with service commitments and have little time to support the apprentices when they are in place. This is coupled with a lack of understanding of how apprentices work and support the NHS workforce needs. 


The introduction of T levels is helping to get younger students engaged.  The Government has already suggested that it will boost the proportion of the apprenticeship levy recovered by the life science sector, from 24%, to surpass the national average (31%) by working with industry to ensure the apprenticeship system works for life science companies and, in particular, those that are SMEs. Apprenticeship funding, and flexible training models that specifically meet the needs of life sciences employers, require further development.  

Current Offering by the University of Kent

The Clinical Trials Specialist degree apprenticeship (level 6) is delivered by an experienced team with a wealth of expertise in apprenticeships in health and science. They provide advice and support on all aspects of the process from advertising the vacancy and funding, to workplace monitoring and end-point assessment requirements. Their learning approach, combining e-learning and block teaching, allows apprentices to thrive in the workplace while gaining a degree.  

Clinical Professionals Ltd has been delivering an industry-specific accredited graduate training programme for over three years now, winning multiple awards for innovation and delivery. Partnering with Kent, they use industry expertise to formulate a complimentary set of modules for the apprenticeship degree focusing more on clinical trials and operating with a strong emphasis on face-to-face delivery.  

Kent work with employers, of any size, nationwide to fill a skills gap in their business.

The cost of the programme is £26,000 per apprentice and this can be paid for from the apprenticeship levy or by government co-investment funding which covers up to 95% of the fees. There are 46 currently on the course with 60 in the pipeline. 4 companies support the course; the largest being GSK.

Where does your institution fit in this stakeholders list? What can you contribute that would help alleviate the current situation?

At CCRA, as well as taking action ourselves, we are committed to working with government and all stakeholders to maximise the impact of our activity strengthening a sector which is already vital to the UK’s productivity and growth.   If we don’t address the skills shortages our status as a world-leading R&D hub we may see even more research – and with it, highly skilled jobs – move abroad. This would be bad news for NHS patients and the UK economy.

To effect change will require Government, the Life Science industry, educational institutions and the NHS to work together to develop new ways to create a sustainable skills pipeline and an innovation-ready workforce suited for the new technologies being developed.

If you have any ideas, thoughts/observations on the above and/or would like get involved in our initiatives please drop a note to