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28 July 2021

King's research has helped to address a key skills gap in the UK's science and technology sector

The government’s ambitions to make the UK a science powerhouse has seen renewed focus on funding and resources for the next generation of research.

But progress on achieving those ambitions has been at risk of stalling because of a growing skills gap across the science and technology industries that has left key sectors without the expert technical support they need to innovate and grow.

However, thanks to the research of King’s College London academic Professor Paul Lewis, real progress has been made to address those gaps and ensure the skills are in place for the next generation in the UK1.

Identifying the skills gap

In response to a lack of knowledge about the skill requirements in new, emerging high-tech industries, Prof Lewis’s research explored and identified a significant skills gap in the UK’s life sciences sector.

His research found that firms struggle to hire suitably qualified technicians from the external labour market, not least because the industry is too young to have developed a qualified and experienced pool of technician labour.

Faced with this challenge, many firms have resorted to hiring bioscience graduates to fill technician roles. However, Prof Lewis’s research uncovered problems with this strategy, including a lack of practical skills and unrealistic expectations about salary and the kind of work undertaken.

To help overcome these issues, Prof Lewis’s research highlighted the potential benefits of an apprenticeship programme. As the life sciences industry develops, Prof Lewis identified that apprenticeship programmes could be used to meet the increasing demand for skilled technicians.

A catalyst for change

Having identified the emerging need to train people with the right skills, work by Prof Lewis, from the Department of Political Economy at King’s, led to the development of new apprenticeship training programmes.

His work helped by the Medicines Manufacturing Industry Partnership to secure funding from the Gatsby Foundation, which was used to create a team based at the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Centre that brought together employers from across the advanced therapies sector to develop a new technician apprenticeship scheme. and later formed part of a successful bid for additional funding submitted to the government-backed body, Innovate UK, through its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

As a result of his research, some 29 apprentices, drawn from 11 advanced therapies companies, began training in 2018. This grew to 72 apprentices across 29 employers in 2019-20 and reached 100 apprentices across 32 employers in September 2020. The major organisations involved in the production of Covid-19 vaccines in the UK (Oxford Biomedica, Cobra Biologics, and FujiFilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, and the Oxford Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility) all take apprentices through this scheme.

Continuing to grow

Such has been the impact of the scheme that, in 2020, the apprenticeship programme was extended to Scotland and the Welsh government has also drawn on the success of the scheme to inform its approach to the semi-conductor cluster of companies in Newport.

The UK government has recently described the apprenticeships programme as an example of “what works” in policy that “UKRI will build upon” and, furthermore, as an investment that “is already paying off – as these skillsets and techniques are capitalised in the pursuit of vaccines”2.

Overall, research by Prof Lewis has been transformative not only for government departments, industry associations and businesses in the UK, it has also enabled individuals to access apprenticeship programmes, fulfilling their potential and achieving their professional aspirations.


Technology & ScienceSociety

In this story

Prof. Paul Lewis

Professor of Political Economy