Nigel Brooksby’s journey from rustic youngster to successful industry leader to one of the UK’s most influential figures in the development of life sciences skills demonstrates what dedication to learning can achieve. Jane Gray talks to him about his career and his view of the challenges now facing his industry.
For a man born and bred deep in the Leicestershire countryside before launching himself into thirty years of busy industrial activity the central London hotel setting for my meeting with Nigel Brooksby was a long way from home in more ways than one. But, Mr Brooksby was soon at ease, reflecting on his professional turning points and speaking enthusiastically about his expectations for the future of the UK life sciences industry.
A board member of the SSC for science based industries, Cogent, but also a ubiquitous presence on almost every life sciences industry council under the sun – or so it seems – Mr Brooksby enjoyed a successful career in industry before ‘retiring’ just over a year ago.
From his first position with Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) as a sales and marketing representative in 1972, Mr Brooksby rose through the ranks at many of the foremost global pharmaceutical companies, eventually finishing his industrial career as non-executive chairman and director of Sanofi UK and Ireland.
But it turns out that promotion comes even more quickly after retirement and Brooksby soon found a new career’s worth of work following a personal passion – skills development.
Brooksby’s untiring enthusiasm for UK plc is obvious, something he says he shares with many contemporaries who have risen to senior positions in industry. “I think there is a real commitment among the Brits who have become senior in industry to give something back,” he says.
But where does his own dedication to skills spring from? Naturally a certain awareness of skills challenges is unavoidable after a long career, but Brooksby reflects that, in retrospect, there may be something more to his fascination with the subject.
“It’s only something I’ve come to think on more recently,” he says.
“But when I was nine I left my tiny village school to join one which was four times the size and it was quickly discovered that I could not read or write.” Wryly he continues: “I’d only been interested in learning all the things that seemed essential at the time – how to drive a tractor and ride a horse on my parents farm.
Luckily, either the headmaster spotted something in me or he was an outrageous optimist. In any case, I got the help I needed – but I could so easily have slipped through the net. I think that is why skills development is so important to me now.”
Back to the future
Whatever the motivation behind his dedication, Nigel Brooksby has certainly become one of the leading a lights for industry skills in the UK. Although he modestly declined to comment on this, a colleague from Cogent outrightly stated that he was their first choice for chair of the SSC’s Life Sciences Skills and Strategy board when the position became available earlier this year.
For Brooksby accepting this position meant the opportunity to be a part of the future of industry. “There are two key elements needed in order to let the UK remain competitive in life sciences,” he says. “You need to make it attractive to do research here, and you need the skills to make that research count.”
Recounting some of his own experiences and observing different attitudes towards workplace skills, Brooksby comments: “Skills never stand still, any manager who tells you they know their job because they have been doing it for ever is talking rubbish. We never stop needing to learn.” As a whole Brooksby thinks this is something which is well recognised in life sciences companies. “The industry is good at developing people,” he says, “but you need the raw materials.” In part this is down to companies. Brooksby fondly remembers his own first career steps: “When I joined Wellcome I did so over the head of two other job opportunities. One with Pfizer and the other with Eli Lilly. I chose Wellcome because they did not just offer me a job. They took an interest in me – giving me a day shadowing a medical rep before I had made any commitment to them. They wanted to be sure I understood what I was entering into.” Brooksby is confident this kind of approach makes for more lasting and productive employment relationships.
But finding the right talent and developing a framework for meaningfully qualifying it and preparing it for developing industry demands is not all down to the employer.
Cogent has put a great deal of work, over recent years, into understanding what employability in an individual means for the sectors under its care. This is now something of which Brooksby is proud to be an active part. Just the day before Brooksby met with TM he had taken part in the launch of a new foundation degree in Life Sciences Laboratory Technology at the University of Kent. In 2012 this will form part of the first ever higher apprenticeship programme for life sciences.