By Gerard Walker, Future Jobs-Skills-Work Insights
The Life Science sector in Ireland comprises 500 Biopharmachem and Medical Devices companies with clusters of activity in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Mayo, Waterford, and Athlone. The sector employs 50,000 people directly as well those working in sub-supply and services activities. It has remained operational throughout the Covid pandemic emergency, utilising remote working where appropriate and redesigning shift patterns. The sectors high-value healthcare and medical devices products are in high demand and contributed to the 3.4% GDP growth rate for Ireland in 2020. Exports of Life Science products of €62 billion accounted for 39% of all Irish exports, increasing 25% over the previous year.
The Life Science sector in Ireland comprises several major multinational companies as well as innovative indigenous SMEs. Traditionally Ireland has been a manufacturing location. However, in recent years companies have increased their investment in R&D facilities. Science Foundation Ireland, IDA Ireland, and Enterprise Ireland have funded several centres for Life Science research. This includes the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training facility, in Dublin which provides quality research and upskilling for managers, operators and graduates within a simulated state-of-the-art Biopharma plant setting.
Manufacturing operations must conform to the strict regulatory standards of the USA Food & Drink Administration, European Medicines Agency, and Ireland's Health Products Regulatory Authority. Operations risk being closed down if these standards are not met. At the forefront of Manufacturing 4.0, the sector utilises cyber-physical and networked databases, including the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, AI, Data Analytics and Robotics. Connected networks, equipment, and systems across the production operation provide real-time data for the optimal cleanroom preparation of products, storage of biomaterials and chemicals, and workplace safety. Managers need knowledge of the connections between different technologies to ensure their successful deployment in the manufacturing process.
A culture of employee engagement in advance of the deployment of new technology is essential. This includes communicating how it may affect job roles and the mutual benefits for both the company and employees. Upskilling in advance of the deployment of technology ensures that workers skills are future-proofed. This is essential for lower qualified workers who are at most risk of job loss through automation.
The sector employs a high proportion of engineers, technicians, and scientists. The majority of engineers are male, with higher numbers of females in science and quality assurance roles. Half of the workforce is engaged in production operations roles that require Leaving Cert level qualifications. There are also roles within management, administration, supply chain and logistics, and warehousing activities. Much of the warehousing activities are now automated. The convergence of technologies within manufacturing is driving demand for engineers and scientists with interdisciplinary expertise. Skills demand is for Automation Engineers, R&D Engineers, Electronic Engineers, Quality Assurance, Data Analysts and production operators with good manufacturing practice experience. There is potential for production operators to upskill to fill the internal demand for technicians and engineer positions. Cybersecurity skills are increasingly essential to protect control systems and data from the threat of viruses and malware. Sustainability skills are required for reducing the use of materials, chemicals, water, and energy within the manufacturing process, packaging, and shipping.
The Life Science sector achieved a 6% annual employment growth rate over the last five years. To meet this growth, enterprises have introduced Return to Work programmes for female returner talent and graduate-entry programmes and internships. Biopharmachem Ireland and Medtech Ireland play a central role in promoting and developing workforce skills, including collaborating with Higher and Further Education and Training to provide flexible blended learning provision using the Springboard + and Skillnet programmes. Life Science Springboard + courses commencing in September 2021 can be viewed at www.springboardcourses.ie. The next intake of the new laboratory apprenticeship is underway. It is suitable for school leavers or career changers and employees looking to retrain. Details are at www.laboratoryapprenticeships.ie.
In the past, the Life Science sector has suffered an image problem for attracting talent. Improved communication of the range of career opportunities and the life-saving range of products that the industry produces will enhance its image. The provision of continual learning and development opportunities is an essential benefit for aiding recruitment and retention.
Ireland is a leading European location for the Life Science sector. It is a significant employer of highly skilled talent and contributes significantly to Irelands exports. The availability of a sufficient pipeline of the right skills and talent will help sustain growth, attract FDI investment and add jobs. Employers can best develop training and education provision in collaboration with Higher and Further Education and Training and private providers. Just 12% of engineering professionals in Ireland are women, and this number needs to increase to meet the growing demand for such skillsets within the Life Science sector.