British Columbia’s Life Sciences Sector Faces Critical Shortage of STEM/Business Professionals

By: Yasmin Ranade

May 1, 2024

A new labour market intelligence (LMI) study reveals a critical need for more skilled talent across Canada’s growing life sciences sector, specifically in British Columbia (B.C.), which currently employs approximately 28,000 people at 1,800+ companies.

The study, British Columbia Life Sciences Labour Market Intelligence Study, describes the sector as “poised for growth, driven by the pace of discovery at academic and research institutions, advancement of novel therapeutics and platform technologies, and innovation in medical and digital health technologies.”

Also projected, however, is a 10-fold talent gap (up to 5,500 professionals from the current gap of 500) by 2027, particularly those with experience in operating and scaling up life sciences companies, as well as those with business acumen (especially with new STEM graduates and technical hires), leadership and management skills, knowledge of quality and regulatory affairs, clinical trials and biomanufacturing, and commercialization and marketing expertise.

To address these shortages, the study put forward seven strategic recommendations, starting with the creation of a Sector Talent Council to prioritize and act on labour and talent recruitment and development.

I asked Wendy Hurlburt, President & CEO of Life Sciences BC (LSBC) about the labour shortages, types of medical and digital health innovation spurring life sciences sector growth in B.C. and how the talent gap will be filled.

Today’s Life Sciences Sector Calls for STEM and Business Know-how

Wendy Hurlburt, President & CEO of Life Sciences BC (LSBC)

Hurlburt began, “British Columbia is home to Canada’s fastest growing life sciences sector…. [and] there is an increased demand for jobs across the spectrum.”

“One of the most remarkable aspects of life sciences is that it truly brings the scientific and business disciplines together,” said Hurlburt. “We often find that people who have a background in science – either from research or through studying STEM – find themselves in life sciences when a commercial opportunity emerges. Others enter the sector with an interest in applying their scientific background to solving real world problems.”

“In B.C., this broad spectrum of STEM-related careers comes together in an interesting way,” explained Hurlburt. “There have been some extraordinary innovations by companies who have taken cross-scientific disciplines and created human-engineered solutions. We see biological sciences intersect with engineering and computer science. For example, Canary Medical is a medical data company that seeks to improve healthcare outcomes through the analysis of data from “smart” implantable medical devices.

“As these companies – like Canary Medical and countless others – grow and scale up their operations, the range of professions that they need also grows. Not only is there a need for those with science or business backgrounds, but also human resources, communications, investor relations, facilities, and more.”

Innovations in Medical and Digital Health

“Innovations in medical and digital health are not only critical to the sector’s growth but are also among the reasons why BC’s life sciences sector is so renowned,” Hurlburt remarked.

“However, we didn’t earn this reputation overnight,” added Hurlburt. “BC was initially well-known for being an antibody hub and through continued commitment and investment, it has evolved to be very strong in antibodies, lipid nanoparticles, as well as cell and gene therapy, and digital health.”

“Given the province’s strengths in the computer science and video game industries, combined with our achievements in health, we seamlessly launched into digital health – which really underscores how cross-scientific disciplines can lead to human-engineered solutions.”

Explained Hurlburt, “As each of the life sciences subsectors continues to grow – in terms of employment and GDP – it’s worth noting that the digital health subsector has experienced the most rapid growth in employment. Over the last three years, employment has grown by 77%, or 3,000 jobs. But there are also skills gaps that act as barriers for each of the subsectors to grow.  For example, within digital health, there are gaps in skills and experience related to healthcare-specific sales, such as a lack of understanding of complex heath landscape and payment systems. Whether they are specific to the subsector or more of a general result of life sciences companies growing and scaling up, there are several gaps that need to be addressed.”

Added Hurlburt, “In terms of up-and-coming medical or digital health technologies, we’re seeing a lot of developments in machine learning and AI, data science, and bioinformatics. Organizations are integrating AI and machine learning into more processes across departments. These are the areas that not only support the companies as they scale up, but also look at where the innovation is going. Clarius Ultrasound provides an excellent example – they are using AI to inform ultrasound diagnostics.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“One of the three key areas that is impacting the B.C. life sciences sector’s talent shortage is the need to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Hurlburt.

“For the most part, diversity data within B.C.’s life sciences sector is scarce. However, we do know that one in three people in the life sciences workforce in Western Canada identifies as female, and there have been significant increases in the number and proportion of women graduating in sector-related fields over the last few years. This gives us confidence that there is a pipeline of trained female talent. For example, between 2017-2020, there was an increase of more than 27% of female graduates studying physical and life sciences and technologies. During that same period, the number of female graduates in the areas of mathematics, computer and information sciences increased by more than 79%.”

“The challenge – and continued opportunity – will be to foster this pipeline of diverse talent,” remarked Hurlburt. “It is imperative that we, as a sector, create those environments that support and encourage those who are graduating to continue pursuing a career in life sciences. This involves taking the time and investing the resources to develop people and ensure that there are opportunities for all candidates to be able to grow and advance their careers. This is one of the reasons why we are creating the sector talent council – a diverse and representative council of academia, research, and industry members – to facilitate collaboration and drive workforce initiatives.”

Developing Greater Awareness / Talent

“Another recommendation included in the report is the need to develop a strategic talent attraction marketing plan to promote the sector as a highly desirable life sciences employment and economic hub,” shared Hurlburt.

“In terms of recruiting the next generation of life sciences leaders, it’s important to work with both post-secondary institutions and private training organizations to develop the agile training ecosystem that is required for the sector to succeed. For women and other underrepresented groups, companies must strengthen DE&I best practices so that they can recruit and retain more diverse talent. However, it also takes commitment at every level – businesses, government, and academia must continue to collaborate,” stated Hurlburt.

“At LSBC, we hold an annual Career Connect Day,” explained Hurlburt. “This is a full-day event that brings together life sciences employers from across the sector, as well as post-secondary students and job seekers. Our latest Career Connect Day brought more than 400 people together – many of these individuals are the future life sciences leaders of tomorrow. I have also met with and given presentations to students at UVIC, UNBC, BCIT, and more, about what a career in this sector entails. By working together with academic institutions that are leading the way for STEM education in BC, we are bringing that industry voice that helps to understand, identify, and encourage those career opportunities.”

Added Hurlburt, “There are also several programs that facilitate getting a job in BC’s life sciences sector, especially for individuals who are diverse, such as those offered by Mitacs and BioTalent Canada. We can’t underestimate the importance of these programs in being able to give people exposure to the sector, and we are proud to regularly promote these to our wide network at LSBC.”

“On a personal level, I am also very passionate about mentorship and am dedicated to making a career in life sciences accessible to everyone,” shared Hurlburt. “One way that we achieve this at LSBC is by offering a year-round co-op student placement program with BioTalent Canada. Since 2020, LSBC has awarded more than 40 four-month terms to help provide valuable experience in this thriving sector.”


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