“Human Resources in the Bio-Economy”

Published on November 11, 2013

Jenna McInnis, quality control technologist, is shown with a clinical chemistry analyzer at Sekisui, West Royalty Industrial Park. Submitted photo

By Margaret Magner

Special to The Guardian

Access to talented, highly skilled people continues to be a key enabler of the Canadian bio-economy according to BioTalent Canada’s recently released labour market report on the biotechnology industry.

A follow-up to its 2008 study, “Sequencing the Data”, assesses current trends and challenges related to human resources planning and skills development. Of key interest to Prince Edward Island is the indication that while regional distribution of biotechnology companies has fallen in Western Canada, Ontario and Quebec, Atlantic Canada continues to be a bright spot — enjoying 3.6 per cent industry growth.

Surveying more than 240 biotech companies nationally with industry partners, including the P.E.I. BioAlliance, the study found skill shortages continue to impact the sector, with 33.2 per cent of companies acknowledging it as a significant factor. Limited access to capital also challenges product and service development, increasing to 73.8 per cent from 65.9 per cent in the 2008 study.

While there has been a decline in other parts of the country, the Prince Edward Island Bioscience Cluster is experiencing steady growth, with more than 1,100 people now employed in the industry and 38 companies established in P.E.I.. Early on, the cluster established a human resources strategy to connect employers with job seekers and deliver HR information and skills development tools. Its Next Generation Prosperity 2012-2015 strategic plan positions human resources as vital to the Cluster’s success.

“Access to skilled human resources in the technical, scientific, process engineering and management areas is key to advancing our next level of growth in P.E.I.,” says Dr. Russell Kerr, chairman of the P.E.I. BioAlliance.

“The Cluster’s academic, private sector, and government partners are working closely to ensure we train, recruit and retain the very best.”

Kerr, CEO of one of P.E.I.’s biotech companies, Nautilus Biosciences Canada Inc., currently employs five graduates from Holland College’s Bioscience Technology Program and praises the program for “turning out highly proficient biotechnologists with hands-on experience that allows them to be functional from day one.”

The Island’s academic institutions play a critical role, educating students essential to the emerging sector. Holland College’s two-year bioscience technology program, recognized by Maclean’s magazine as one of Canada’s “Red-Hot Postgraduate Programs,” provides scientific theory and hands-on laboratory experience — related to pharmaceuticals; natural health products; and environment, food, and agricultural sciences preparing students for careers in a bioscience lab or a biotech-based manufacturing facility.

UPEI’s highly specialized MBA in biotechnology management and entrepreneurship focuses on “the business of science” and commercialization, as well as related ethical and regulatory issues, preparing graduates for management roles and to develop and grow new ventures. The bioscience sector, which lobbied for these programs, continues to support the programs’ evolution, serving in an advisory capacity, participating in student internship and on-the-job training opportunities, and hiring many graduates.

The P.E.I. BioAlliance, the public-private partnership coordinating Bioscience Cluster development, ensures job seekers are aware of current career opportunities and employers have the necessary resources to recruit and retain them.

Vivian Beer, manager, HR strategy for the BioAlliance, sees a significant increase in the number of P.E.I. hires within the sector.

“Many new positions are being filled locally which indicates the bioscience cluster is improving its outreach to local job seekers.”

Through the bioAlliance website job posting page, companies advertise positions. The bioAlliance sends out a notification to the job seekers mailing list and through social media pages such as LinkedIn and Facebook pages and Twitter.

“We also do some matchmaking in cases where job seekers offer specialized talent that may be a good fit for specific bioCluster companies,” says Beer.

Quarterly, the organization tracks recruitment and retention statistics for cluster companies to provide a snapshot of industry needs and progress. This past year, a workshop was offered to bioscience cluster organizations on strategies to manage top talent. An HR toolkit is available for early-stage companies to ensure they establish a good foundation while building their team.

In conjunction with BioTalent Canada, the P.E.I. BioAlliance promotes the career rocus wage subsidy program. Other popular programs supporting employment include the NSERC industrial scholarship and fellowships programs and the graduate mentorship program offered by Skills P.E.I.

All these factors continue to ensure the province’s bioscience industry is well positioned for the future.

“The model is working for us here in P.E.I.,” says Rory Francis, executive director of the P.E.I. BioAlliance. “We’re increasing our numbers and successfully recruiting skilled employees to fill our companies’ needs. We’re proud Prince Edward Island is distinguishing itself within the national context.”

Margaret Magner, Ph.D., is a freelance journalist in Charlottetown (www.magnerink.com). She writes on P.E.I.’s bioscience industry.