Why should we upskill the U.K.’s biomanufacturing workforce?

The Pfizer vaccine [for COVID-19] is the first RNA technology to be approved in humans, and RNA vaccines have so much potential for the future. You could end up with a vaccine for cancer or dementia and, of course, COVID isn’t going to go away. So, the U.K. needs to have the skilled workforce to develop and manufacture these amazing treatments.

We can build as many factories as we want, but if we don’t have the people to operate them, we’re not going to get the vaccines.

What’s been done so far to create an agile and skilled workforce?

The U.K. Government gave 4 million pounds to set up the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network, which has an online portal that holds training materials. Some of the funding also went to set up national training centres, of which the National Horizons Centre is one. And that’s provided us with funds to employ trainers and purchase equipment, so we can provide continued professional development courses for people working in the industry who need to be cross-skilled or upskilled.

Staff at the U.K.’s National Horizons Centre are delivering training to Fujifilm employees,
Gillian Taylor and Safwan Akram.

What still needs to be done?

We need to ensure that we’ve got a talent pipeline coming through. And that’s everything from outreach in schools to make sure people realize how great careers are, through to apprenticeships, and working in further education and higher education to make sure that the training provided is relevant to the industry.

I think what we need is something like The X-Files which made forensic criminology popular to study at university. We need a TV show that makes bioscience sexy—that makes science as popular as Love Island—and which demystifies the industry, just as Brian Cox [did for] physics. I think people have this misconception that everything to do with biomanufacturing and vaccine manufacturing is people in laboratories, but there’s a whole host of other careers in supply chain, logistics, and finance—all the supporting infrastructure we really need.

What can GEN readers do to help?

I think everyone has their part to play. There are plenty of opportunities to mentor people in schools as alumni advocates. There was also a [U.K. government] bill out recently, the Post-16 Education and Skills Bill and I think that’s great because apprenticeships are for anyone, at any time in their life. There was a chef who did an apprenticeship and is now making gene therapies, so there are some great opportunities out there.