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30 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:28pm

A science workforce fit for the future

A diverse and adaptive workforce is crucial to the success of any innovative business.  

By Jacqui Hall

The world of work is changing, and nowhere is this idiom truer than in the pharmaceutical industry. Disruptive technologies, including digital health and artificial intelligence, necessitate a change in the way that we approach recruitment and development of staff.

Apprenticeships – paid jobs, where people learn new skills while simultaneously studying for a qualification – represent a valuable opportunity to grow and diversify workforces. The appeal to employers is clear: Apprenticeships offer the chance to hire enthusiastic minds and mould them alongside evolving industry needs.

The appeal to prospective apprentices is even clearer: These programmes enable them to earn as they learn, and to have a career shaped by hands-on advice, as well as access to state-of-the-art equipment. Modern apprenticeships also offer the opportunity to re-train existing staff in new areas, supporting the aim of lifelong learning.

Successful businesses should seek to blend their apprenticeship and graduate workforces. They possess different, but equally significant, skills and expertise. But it is fair to say that when it comes to positive publicity, the graduate route has tended to be afforded the lion’s share. Apprenticeships, too often, are misinterpreted as the “easy” option, but this is plainly untrue.

At AstraZeneca, we offer a wide range of programmes for early career scientists. Some individuals will move into full-time roles after these programmes, but about 75 per cent will move into the external scientific environment, either to do a PhD or to alternative employment. We pride ourselves on high-quality apprenticeships that combine advanced scientific education, delivered through leading UK universities, with practical experience.

We have around 130 apprentices in the UK, based mostly at our Cambridge and Macclesfield sites. Most of these are studying for degree-level apprenticeships that are vital for developing cutting-edge skills in areas such as advanced manufacturing and data science. The interface of health with the digital sector means we need new skills and apprenticeships that can help us to fill gaps where it is difficult to find graduates with the right skills, or where resources are scarce.

At AstraZeneca, we have a varied staff makeup, in excess of 60,000 across 100 countries. We are not just scientists and doctors, but businesspeople, financiers, IT specialists, lawyers and more. Our apprenticeships span all subsets of our operations and through them we able to cast out net far and wide, discovering and nurturing talent from all backgrounds.

The aspiration for AstraZeneca is to build a workforce that can move with the times. Apprenticeships can play a role in delivering on this aim if the conversation around them can mature. It is not about pitting apprentices against graduates. It is about recognising that both routes offer different skill-sets that are equally valuable in responding to evolving challenges.

Jacqui Hall is head of early careers for BioPharmaceuticals R&D, AstraZeneca.

Case study: Rebecca Paige Orwig, Level 5 laboratory scientist

I did not follow the traditional path to an apprenticeship at AstraZeneca. I was working in marketing for a pharmaceutical company when I discovered my passion for science. I found that I would rather read the clinical studies for a product than write the brand strategies, and I decided to change my career to something that I really enjoyed.

As I was still paying off the debt from my previous degrees (Russian and international relations), a traditional university degree in chemistry was not an option. I found the apprenticeship at AstraZeneca and it provided the perfect solution.

Not only would I receive the education (a foundation degree in applied chemistry), but I would gain the relevant industry experience with the latest equipment and techniques while helping to produce compounds that would make a real impact to patients. The salary was also a bonus as I have a mortgage to pay.

The apprenticeship has definitely surpassed my expectations. The fact that I get paid to come to work every day and learn is amazing.

The mentoring, training and hands-on experiences I have been able to gain have not only increased my passion for the sciences but have given me the confidence that I can be a successful scientist.

I would advise any person who is considering a “mature” apprenticeship to apply for one with AstraZeneca. This experience has been one of the most challenging and rewarding ones of my life, and I am so grateful that I now wake up in the mornings happy to go to work

Case study: Holly Carter, Level 6 associate scientist

I joined AstraZeneca as a Level 5 laboratory scientist apprentice back in September 2016. I was 18 at the time and had not long finished my A-Levels. I had considered university as an alternative option, but I ultimately decided that the apprenticeship would be the right route for me.

My Level 5 apprenticeship consisted of working four days a week in the chemical development department at our Macclesfield site and one day a week studying towards my foundation degree in chemical sciences (FdSc).

My degree covered various aspects of chemistry alongside health and safety, environmental studies and business improvement. This allowed me to gain the chemistry knowledge I need for the job while also learning about different areas that are important to working within the industry.

Alongside my studies I have worked with my mentor to develop and validate a new laboratory procedure for which I was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Sciences Apprentice of the Year Award in 2018.

Alongside my main work I have had the opportunity to develop a wide range of laboratory and business skills from the other experienced staff around me.

I completed my Level 5 apprenticeship earlier this year and I have now secured a full-time job at AstraZeneca while still being able to continue studying towards my full BSc in chemical sciences.

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