The possibility of 'gaps' in European biotechnology skills is a concern for several reasons. As a discipline, biotechnology adds value to a sweep of industry sectors, from medicine and agriculture to chemicals, renewable energy and beyond. The internal competition on the available skills pool from these sectors is likely to feed on itself. This will both drive up wages, and may lead to critical shortages of personnel across the board.
Global great game for skills
Biotechnology is also a frontier science, where Western leadership is indisputable, for now. However, future growth could quickly become a global Great Game for skills; in other words, concentrating on the higher end of the value chain may compel Western firms to accelerate outsourcing low- and middle-level biotech tasks to 'low-cost' countries; global jobs portals such as Monster.com show such a trend has already begun in earnest.
Low-cost countries may well leverage such requirements as a Trojan Horse into Western markets, after building a critical mass of lower-end (but irreplaceable) biotech competencies. The door could then be opened for them to systematically climb the value chain and displace their 'high-cost' competitors, both on the latters' home markets, and worldwide. This is not paranoia. It would be the Second Act of a drama which began with information technology.
In IT, while the West (Europe in particular) thought of India as just a place for cheap Year 2000 coding in the 1990s, followed by call centres in the early 2000s, few looked at what the Indians were up to. Call centres, in fact, never counted for over 10% of Indian IT exports. Today, the 100 billion Euro Indian software industry includes a half-dozen companies with market valuations and headcounts far above their European rivals. India also hosts cutting-edge R&D hubs of US IT leaders such as IBM and Oracle or Germany's SAP – including several dedicated to healthcare. Indeed, GE, the icon of Western Technology Inc. employs more Ph.Ds in India than in the US.
And what is the endpoint today as far as skills go? Europe's IT workforce has shrunk to insignificance. A 10-year decline in enrolment at technical schools and universities in the EU meant a shortage of graduates to fill entry-level requirements, or to climb the skills ladder and keep the IT industry local. In effect, the pyramid of competencies has hollowed out at the core, and while the IT industry has shifted East, the West has become deskilled.
This is especially true in Europe. Unlike the US, Europe was too late in coming to terms with its IT skills gap, numbering in the hundreds of thousands by the early 2000s. When the EU launched its Blue Card scheme for high-skilled technology workers at the end of 2009, the US H-1B visa scheme (on which the Blue Card was modelled) was reaching the end of its shelf life. Far more H-1B holders were headed back to India than entering the US. Worse, US nationals had begun to enrol in the workforce of Indian IT firms, in the US and in India. Few from either group were interested in Europe.
There are close parallels between IT in the late 1990s and biotechnology today. Like the latter, IT was a value-adding engine across industrial sectors – from back-office services to logistics and manufacturing. India already has scores of biotech companies with the potential to become world leaders. In terms of intellectual property, an analyisis of Revealed Technological Advantage from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows India considerably ahead of the EU-27, and on par with European biotechnology leaders, France and the UK.
China joins India
However, a more worrying development is the arrival of the other Asian behemoth, China, which has taken a leaf out of the Indian IT outsourcing story. China now seeks to leapfrog the Indian learning curve in biotechnology, and either compete with India head-on – or collaborate with it in the shape of Sino-Indian biotechnology joint ventures. Skills shortages would bother neither, unduly. According to an end-2009 survey by Ernst & Young, India and China produce 1.2 million science graduates a year, against 420,000 in the US and 470,000 in Europe. Driven by demographics and economic growth, this lead is only likely to grow. Meanwhile, a status check on biotechnology in Europe indicates the urgency of both assessing skills and planning for a gap. EuropaBio, the biotech industry association, estimates employment in the industry at just under 50,000. However, there is no clarity about what exactly a biotechnology job is. The OECD made a major effort in 2009 to differentiate between biotechnology jobs at industrial firms, pureplay biotechnology firms, and dedicated R&D jobs in both. However, its report excludes major players like Denmark and the UK, and covers France only partially. Other gap assessments in broad science skills have faced similar hurdles. Some remain puzzling – for example, a refusal by Germany's Federal Employment Agency to publish its findings due to "data protection issues." Political will, at the top of the EU, would surely sweep such difficulties aside. One place to begin might be the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), which conducts in-depth surveys on skill gaps in Europe.
Small steps may work best
Indeed, vocational training for biotechnology/life sciences may be a quick and meaningful step ahead, to pre-empt the low- and middle-level skills shortages which would accompany a future biotechnology boom. There already is evidence of such a shortage. The UK government's 2009 Life Sciences Strategy initiative, for example, found that rather than the top, skills gaps were concentrated in areas such as qualified trainees, manufacturing process and laboratory technicians (staffed by over-qualified Ph.Ds). Across the Atlantic, Canada has begun tackling such a gap. The organisation BioTalent Canada has, since 2008, worked with universities to adapt curricula to the needs of industry (rather than academia alone). This year, it has begun retraining 'traditional' manufacturing workers for biotechnology, and collaborating with industry to create a BioReady™ label for retrained workers. Down the line, such small but significant steps may pre-empt Europe's biotechnology industry, like IT, from becoming a victim of its own success.