Life science graduates get 'hand skills'

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Unique course helps unemployed scientists to be `work ready' launched at Forth Valley College

Finding a job in the life science industries in Scotland is not easy, even if you have a good degree and Scotland is one of the world's top five emerging locations for life sciences.

This industry employs more than 32,000 staff and is worth pound;3 billion to the Scottish economy. "The problem is that life science is a highly- regulated industry and graduates do not have a good understanding of industry regulation or compliance with these standards," says Wendy Livingstone, associate principal for business and innovation at Forth Valley College. "Even though graduates have excellent analytical and problem-solving skills, they don't have the level of `hand skills' required."

This, Dr Livingstone puts down to "a lack of partnership between university and industry at an undergraduate level", and it's a perception shared by many in the industry.

Take Louise Rice. She is human resources director for US-based multinational BioReliance. Her remit covers Scotland, Europe and Asia Pacific and she has 21 years' experience. Yet she talks consistently about how hard it is for graduates to break into the industry and how haphazard recruitment can be.

"One employee had three degrees, two post-grad, but had been working in Tesco's for 10 years! She couldn't get a job in the industry because she had no practical experience. I took her on board because I could see her drive and potential."

Now, working in partnership on a new pilot programme, Forth Valley College and BioReliance believe they are about to change the face of graduate recruitment in the life sciences - and not just in Scotland, but much further afield.

The 11-week programme, Science Graduates for Work, launched last week by Keith Brown, Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, is designed to help jobless scientists become "work ready" by giving them the chance to learn lab skills and industrial awareness in the workplace.

The course has been developed in consultation with Scotland's other life science colleges (Dundee and Adam Smith) and Skills Development Scotland, and accredited by the Sector Skills Council for Science, SEMTA. It is designed to bring students up to speed on the stringent regulations of good laboratorymanufacturing practice, including three weeks' practical experience at BioReliance in Stirling. It is a small, but significant start, according to Dr Livingstone and Miss Rice.

"The problem we are addressing is the same the world over, even in the US, where I spent many years working. This course is unique," says Miss Rice. "As an in-depth selection and recruitment programme, it's the most exciting development I've seen and is a real feather in the cap of Forth Valley College, and Scotland."

Because the industrial partnership is unique to the college sector, which already develops work-ready trainees and technician-level graduates for the life science industries, Dr Livingstone believes it is in pole position to develop enhanced undergraduate programmes, working together with Scotland's universities and the industry.

"By embedding change and enhancing learning at undergraduate level through simulated work experience," she says, "we can develop a sustainable pool of recruits."

To this end, she is broaching a partnership with Edinburgh University "to convert skills gaps into learning outcomes for third-year undergraduates, without interrupting their university programme".

"There is already interest in England from universities, colleges and government bodies," says Miss Rice.

Both women insist this is not just about the needs of the industry but as much - if not more - about the needs of students and graduates.

"It's frustrating to see good graduates not gaining the right experience - a sad waste of talent and potential. We are about developing their careers successfully, and their success is our success, success for the company, the industry and the community," says Miss Rice.

One student hoping to share in this success is Dionisio Dias Nhampulo, who has a B.Ed in chemistry and biology and a B.Sc in aqua culture. The nearest he has come to the kind of work he qualified for is as a lab assistant; he has mainly worked as an auditor in the hotel trade.

One of the 10 new recruits to the FVC course, he hopes to update his science and pursue a career in the life science industry. "We've just started but I can already see how I have to come up to speed with everything," Mr Nhampulo said.

"It's a fast-changing industry, so many improvements since I took my B.Sc in 1995. The technology has altered significantly and even first-aid training, which I took as part of my degree, has changed. It's good to be doing what I qualified to do. I hope this will open doors for me."

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