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Upskilling pharma workforce to be future-ready

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Sanjeev Goel, Business Head, Manipal ProLearn highlights that the pharma sector needs an agile workforce to leverage opportunities and overcome challenges in a post-COVID world and emphasises that pharma organisations should assess and calibrate employees in terms of their skill levels to address development areas through reskilling or upskilling

COVID-19 has inarguably been one of the three worst diseases to have hit mankind in the last 100 years. Governments across the world have imposed lockdowns to contain the spread of the viral disease by shutting down almost all non-essential services. Medicines, healthcare and medical equipment being essential services, have continued operations throughout this period, but have been bogged down in just ensuring supply chain movements, and dealing with the challenges of the impact of the lockdown, i.e. non-availability of raw materials, under-utilisation of manufacturing units, absence of available labour, connectivity issues for most of the white-collar staff in ‘work from home’, absence of in-person sales, and cyber-risk management.

During the lockdown, the pharma industry witnessed a significant acceleration in consumer behaviour – shift to e-consultations through live video calls/phone-calls between doctors and patients, e-purchases of medicines by uploading doctor’s e-prescriptions, and home-collection of blood samples. At the same time, pharma companies intensified and accelerated their pace of digital transformation to improve quality and productivity by deploying new-age technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Cloud computing, robotic process automation (RPA), and others to speed up drug repurposing medicines and development of biomarkers.

Need for an agile workforce

Despite the economic slowdown, the pharma industry is expected to register positive growth across most of the critical financial parameters including top-line revenues, profits and market-capitalisation through soaring stock prices. With the global markets reducing their dependence on China for drugs due to its poor handling of the COVID-19 spread, it is expected that India will fill that gap through ramping up production and exports of generics and APIs in the coming months.

This represents both an opportunity and a challenge for India’s pharma industry to redefine their processes and approaches. The redefinition needs to start from assessing and calibrating individual employees in terms of their skill levels. Once assessed, the development areas need to be addressed through being reskilled or upskilled to cope with the new technologies and advances in their respective functional domain. Similarly, prospective employees need to be given hands-on training to bring them up to speed with current and future skills identified as being critical.

The talent-transition hub or HR Innovation Hub within pharma organisations is tasked to manage the workforce transformation by facilitating the learning journey of identified employees on future-ready skills. To that end, Manipal ProLearn launched the School of Pharma, with UL as its content and certification partner. Before launching specialised and focused programmes, we must filter talent through extensive evaluation using assessment tools from providers like MeritTrac, and follow through by training them appropriately while customising some of the modules as per client requirements. In fact, we recommend and organise training with a high ‘experiential’ component of 70 per cent that can be achieved through specific practical training and on-the-job training.

Here are some of the important aspects of upskilling the pharma workforce in the current context:

  1. Upskilling is top-down: The transformation journey through upskilling in any industry starts from the leadership level and senior management. Training the leadership first ensures that they become the coaches and mentors of their respective teams when the organisation-wide strategic initiatives of upskilling are launched, and helps build a culture of upskilling in the organisation.
  2. Upskilling in drug discovery: To reduce the ‘time to market’ for new drugs, pharma companies in India are leveraging workforce capabilities in medical skills and IT capability – a critical combination in today’s research teams in global clinical R&D for clinical trials, data management, testing, etc.
  3. Upskilling in drug manufacturing: With close to 30,000 drug manufacturing units in India, some of them as basic as tin-sheds manufacturing a single chemical/ingredient, competing with the larger fully automated formulations plants being run by top pharma companies, the need for upskilling is being felt even more in the post-COVID scenario.
  4. Upskilling in policy and regulatory environment: With more than 60 per cent of India’s pharma sector catering to the exports segment, there has always been a continuous demand for training them on export-related documentation, and international business teams on knowledge and implementation of the various guidelines, policies and protocols defined by various regulatory authorities in India and abroad, especially in the US and Europe.
  5. Upskilling on radical research vs incremental research: Pharmaceutical innovation has been incremental, rather than radical, leading to most such innovations having little or hardly any added therapeutic value over existing treatments. There’s a critical need to upskill the R&D employees to focus on trying to discover the prevention and cure of root causes of ailments rather than just treat the symptoms of ailments.
  6. Upskilling on technology: Mechanisation, automation, and computerisation need people with the requisite skills to operate them. Pharma organisations must train their employees in the areas of evolving technical skills and technology-advancements from time to time.
  7. Reduction of errors and time: The technological advancement aims to reduce manual error and time of operations. The upskilling of the workforce in new domains ensures an error-free process in the pharma industry. This allows rapid adoption of newly defined processes, which is pivotal in a rapidly changing healthcare system.
  8. Upskilling on quality: The internal efforts within pharma organisations at skilling have not yet shown the desired outcomes. The USFDA still issues warning letters and the impact of this far outweighs costs of skilling the employees using a global standard. It is not financially viable for these companies to fly in expert trainers and consultants from the US, since their ability to keep costs under control is important to remain competitive in the domestic and international markets. Hence the need to upskill them through global-standard trainers who have the requisite credentials from a global certification body which is well recognised in the pharma sector.
  9. Upskilling for increased productivity: Increase in skill efficiency usually results in an increase in quantity, quality and output. A trained worker gives improved performance, machine and materials are carefully handled and more economically used. Upskilling leads to higher employee morale as training inculcates feelings of being properly cared for, and the employer is sincere in developing them.
  10. Upskilling leads to reduced supervision: A trained worker shows a high level of self-discipline and self-supervision. Both the employee and the supervisor want less supervision and micro-management. Upskilled labour can contribute substantially to reducing accident rates as they develop safety attitudes and take necessary precautions to avoid mishaps.

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