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Hiring for Cell & Gene Therapy: what does the future hold?

​Cell & Gene Therapy is the very cutting edge of medical science. The treatments are high impact - awe inspiring, even - this is what promising candidates want to be doing. But with so few of those candidates, and so many people chasing them, what does the future hold for recruitment in this sector?

The Cell & Gene Therapy (CGT) industry is going through its own equivalent of the ‘tech boom’, with huge amounts of interest and investment;16 of the top 20 biopharmaceutical companies have added CGT products to their portfolios. A variety of sources estimate upwards of 20% annual growth for both Cell Therapy and Gene Therapy markets (that’s double the growth for biologics or biotech alone).

And it’s no surprise. These therapies offer cures for diseases that previously didn’t even have any treatment - so-called ‘orphan’ conditions, that were not cost-effective to create medical solutions for. They use the latest scientific and technological methods to change the lives of people that medicine could previously not help at all.

But universities are struggling to produce enough CGT-qualified graduates, or give them the hands-on skills required to hit the ground running in this highly specialised field. And despite technological advances, the process of designing, developing and manufacturing these treatments is still eye-wateringly expensive.

It can feel like the future is uncertain for the industry, but there is hope. Here are some of the challenges and innovative solutions that can help you find and secure the talented people you need, when you need them.

Widen your talent pool

We know that you can’t just hire anyone with aseptic experience and put them to work in GMP facilities. Producing alivingproduct is not the same as producing small molecule drugs, which can be purified after production. And of course, your product is more precious - if things go wrong, it can be very costly in terms of both time and money. 

But with so few GMP-skilled technicians and scientists, how can you attract and retain them to work with you? Is there another option?

You can’t train many of the attributes needed to excel in this type of work: troubleshooting, problem solving, accountability and thinking outside the box, for example. But youcantrain additional measures to people with generic experience working in biosafety cabinets. So perhaps it’s time to reconsider your required vs desirable list for new hires. See if you can relax your requirements for specific experience if you instead select for great learners with strong references. Then, make sure you have a solid training plan in place to bring those skills up to exactly where you need them to be. 

“It is essential that the stakeholders in this field work in symbiosis in order to solve the recruitment issue. It is key to find alternatives for this sector to become attractive for candidates, and that includes companies being less stringent on the qualifications needed." Charlène Planchenault, Recruiter for Biotech companies, Kelly Life Science Paris.

This approach offers many other benefits, such as career and skill development for those employees, who in return are more likely to be motivated to stay with you for the long haul.

Additionally, extending your network by offering support to academic institutions who provide CGT courses is a great way to attract recent graduates to your organisation. Specialist recruiters also have contacts across the industry, including in academia, so that’s another avenue open to exploration.

Antisocial hours vs changing the future of medicine

This can also be a high-intensity field to work in; late nights and unusual shift patterns. Cells don’t stop growing at the weekend! The current global situation has people rethinking work-life balance, with a priority on the ‘life’ side of the equation. It sounds like a losing combination, but another post-pandemic trend is that people are thinking very carefully about what their values are. They want to know they are doing something worthwhile. If you want to attract candidates to roles that include unsocial hours, you need to get really good at playing up the fact that you are working at the forefront of medical science. 

And of course, there is no better time to reconsider your flexible working and other benefits. Remember - sites like GlassDoor mean that candidates can find out if you walk the talk when it comes to things like time off in lieu of antisocial hours, so it’s important to put some real thought into this and get it right.

And if you do? Another door opens for you - relocating talent from elsewhere. The seemingly endless lockdowns have inspired wanderlust and a desire to try something brave and new in many people, and with a vision and mission like yours, it is highly likely that you can offer such candidates something that will make them feel like the big move is worthwhile.

Facilitating growth in the future

The talent shortage isn’t the only thing holding back progress in this sector. Currently, it’s very expensive to create treatments per person, or even more widely applicable treatments. 

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s almost certainly going to be automation and machine learning. While this, too, can be costly to implement, it can also show great ROI in a relatively short period of time. Full automation is unlikely to happen soon due to the highly specific nature of CGT treatments. But with technology advancing rapidly, and plenty of investment, it’s time to get a headstart on thinking about how the recruitment challenges you face might change when it does.

You’ll likely still need many of the hands-on staff you currently hire, but alongside these will be developers/programmers and analysts that specialise in setting up, running, maintaining and analysing the outputs of automated machinery. Which means different skills will be required in the not-too-distant future. So now is a good time to start thinking about nurturing that pipeline of talent and planning how you could utilise workers from other industries who have the skills you need, or even cross-training your own employees.

Technology to the rescue

In such a highly fragmented market, where different companies are often responsible for the design, development, testing and production of each treatment, there can be a lot of inefficiencies. Bringing all of these processes in-house simply isn’t an option for all but the biggest organisations. But once again, technology will hold the solutions. 

Streamlining operations, working closely with a smaller number of trusted suppliers and building lasting relationships with them is the future. That means that working towards a digital-first approach to everything you do is a wise investment, as it allows for easier and more efficient collaboration. And the more that you do this, the more you open up opportunities for hybrid working arrangements for employees, or even hiring people from out of state or overseas for certain roles.

Eventually, we may even see these processes taking place in the metaverse, where deep collaboration between professionals’ avatars working together in real-time in virtual-reality labs becomes possible. But until then, you can focus on extending your talent pool and using some of the post-pandemic trends to your advantage in your hunt for the talent you need.