Imbalance in UK science industry skills needs addressing

New figures released today show the skills shortage afflicting industrial and life sciences is now at risk of getting worse without action, undermining the sector’s global competitiveness.

Figures compiled by Cogent Skills from the national Labour Force Survey in the past 12 months reveal how more mature workers in the science sectors outnumber newer entrants and show the extent of today’s challenge to fill job roles with appropriately skilled people.

A scientist looks at a bacteria culture (research, investigation, science, R&D) - image courtesy of DFC
Nearly all companies in the industrial science sector have vacancies that are difficult to fill.

Across the industrial sciences sector – including chemicals, petroleum, polymers and paints – there are over 30,000 more employees (18%+) aged 40-64 than those in the 16-40 age group (170,314 vs 139,954).

New or recent school leavers and graduates account for only 8.5% of the sector’s total workforce.

In terms of finding the right people, nearly all companies in the industrial science sector (97.5%) have vacancies that are difficult to fill because of skills shortages. Nearly 70% are receiving a “low number of applicants with the required skills”.

In life sciences, there are 28% more employees aged 40-64 than 16-40 (115,845 vs 83,454) with new or recent school leavers and graduates making up only 5% of the total workforce. More than 80% of companies in the sector have vacancies affected by skills shortages, and over 70% struggle to attract applicants with the skills they need to satisfy “hard to fill” vacancies.

Manufacturing in the laboratory with chemicals
More than 80% of companies in the sector have vacancies affected by skills shortages.

Actavis, global pharmaceutical company, is one organisation addressing its succession planning by investing in new Trailblazer Apprenticeships designed to be bespoke to a company’s skills requirements.

Technical transfer manager at Actavis, Hilary Jeffreys commented: “We recognised the need to bring in apprentices to support future growth and build a pipeline of home-grown talent in different areas of the business.

“And though employers may previously have struggled with the concept of employing apprentices rather than graduates, they are now understanding the opportunity apprenticeships offer to individuals and the company. The qualifications combined with the experience apprentices gain are very relevant to employers.

“With bespoke apprenticeships such as the Trailblazer we will develop people with the right skills because we’ve been directly involved in defining and shaping what is required to enable the employee to do the role by the end of the course.”

Lab 552
Those likely to retire in the next 10 years outnumber 16-24 year olds in the current workforce by nearly 21,000.

Through the Science Industry Partnership (SIP), facilitated by Cogent Skills, employers across the science industry sectors are encouraging their peers to embrace the available support and match-funding to address the long-term skills challenges in the UK.

Chair of the SIP Futures Group, SIP Board member and EME laboratory business director at Synergy Health, Mark Botting said: “The age gap across the science sectors is a clear signal that science sector companies need to have succession planning along with skills and talent development on their agenda now.

“Skills shortages ultimately affect an organisation’s ability to compete in an increasingly global market. The figures we have collated suggest that a greater proportion of people currently working across industrial and life sciences will be leaving the workforce in the next 25 years than those remaining behind.

“In fact, those aged 55-64 in industrial sciences who are likely to retire in the next 10 years outnumber 16-24 year olds in the current workforce by nearly 21,000. In life sciences, it’s more than 17,000. The sector needs to do something now to address the brain drain.”

The SIP, since its inception in April 2014, has introduced more than 370 apprentices into science sector businesses, which can obtain funding via the SIP.  Indeed the SIP’s most ambitious strand is Apprenticeships, with a target of 1,360 starts.