COVID Lessons Learned: Harnessing The Power of Transferable Skills

Viewpoint | | 4 minute read.
sampling from test tubes

If the past year’s pandemic has reinforced one thing for me, it’s that there is an undoubted skills shortage in the UK Life Sciences sector.

Whilst of course the race for efficient, effective testing, health care and vaccination has called upon the sector more than ever before, I’m not just referring to a short-term issue. This is something that, as Life Sciences resourcing experts, we knew long ago: demand outstrips supply. And yet, whilst recent events have served to underline those shortages, they have also – in a lateral manner – perhaps paved the way for a solution.

Whilst the pandemic has had a drastically negative affect upon some industries, others have been seen to actively thrive under such conditions – and I’m not just talking about Life Sciences. IT service providers (in particular Cloud-based and security technologies), certain retailers and manufacturers have benefited from the unusual circumstances, but a sudden surge in business does tend to equate to a shortage of skills required to manage that surge.

The solution to this? I believe we need to capture some of the flexibility and openminded-ness that has been a positive feature of the past 12 months.

Firstly, let’s think about working from home (WFH). Until 2020, many employers – and indeed, their employees – thought that effective working from home was unachievable. Too much physical and psychological adjustment required, was the response.

Fast forward to March 2021, and millions have been successfully working from home for a year – with very little disruption to normal business. WFH and practices such as truly flexible working have been pressed into play through necessity and successfully adopted on a global scale – and it looks as though this may have changed the work/life balance for the foreseeable future.

In other words, something previously deemed “risky” or “too much hassle” has actually turned out to be pretty low risk and not very much hassle at all.

So, can we apply this crucial lesson learned to address the skills gaps we are identifying? I think we can.

We need to continue to be truly open to some change, but if we do so, we can embrace the very real benefits of harnessing the powers of transferable skills. Taking my own focus on Life Sciences into account, those industries impacted negatively by the pandemic offer some of the most relevant skills we could possibly look for.

We know that every year, there is a new cohort of specifically-trained Life Sciences graduates and it is vital that they are encouraged to remain in the sector, building up a valuable level of experience. But how do we address the shortages whilst these graduates take the time to gather those workplace skills? Many have been successfully fast-tracked in the past year, but that isn’t ideal, nor is it a longer-term solution to the skills shortages we’re experiencing. I believe the answer lies in cross-sector resourcing and development.

For example, the synergies are clear between experienced quality control in a high spec engineering manufacturing workshop, versus a biotechnology laboratory. Project management and quality assurance are two other examples of highly transferable skills, where experience cannot be underestimated. In all these circumstances, the setting, the product and the regulations may differ, but those can be taught – and probably quicker than most of us realise. The key is to ensure that the fundamental mindset and capabilities are there.

Be assured, this isn’t about trying to fit square pegs into round hole and neither does it apply to all positions – but when it comes to Life Sciences, I feel like we’re really on to something. The past 12 months have shot Life Sciences into the headlines, giving external industries a real insight into its critical impact on our everyday lives, and perhaps a better understanding of the types of roles within our sector. This should have the effect of making a career Life Sciences a more obvious – and appealing – option for many, now. The role of technology in Life Sciences has increased exponentially this year. Think about developments in the patient data gathering, management and analysis required to fast track the development of our vaccines; gone are the days of a paper-based system which was widely in use until 2020).

In other words, not only are there “traditional” skills gaps to fill in Life Sciences, but there are increased opportunities from new perspectives. That’s a lot to address over the next few years.

I am a member of a steering group designed to expand upon the theory of transferable skills and resourcing new opportunities within the sector, by creating an academy dedicated to identifying those gaps, then redeploying people from other sectors by developing their existing skills in line with our specific requirements. It requires an objective mindset and the ability to act swiftly.

Those attributes will give us the means of mitigating a skills shortage which will impact each and every one of us in the years to come.

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