A job for life

Europe’s ageing population is providing a strong market for aids to improve quality of life and medical manufacturing is struggling to fill vacancies. Julia Pierce reports.

Vital equipment that helps keep people alive has more than a monetary significance. However, that should not mean the economic importance of medical manufacturing should be underestimated.

The industry employs about 60,000 people in the UK and is valued at €7bn (£5.7bn), making the UK the largest medical manufacturing country in Europe, according to figures from the OECD and Eucomed, the European medical technology group.

The strength of the market means there are a wealth of opportunities for engineers, while the demands of patients and healthcare providers has created a strong culture of innovation.

Meanwhile, population trends mean demand for products that can improve quality of life and deliver ever more sophisticated drugs is likely to increase in the future. This will create a long-term future for staff, who will also benefit from the knowledge that their products are helping to make life easier for those with debilitating conditions.

Datalink Electronics is a contract manufacturer working with a number of UK industrial sectors. Its work includes producing inhaler systems, one of which will be used by a major medical company for the delivery of growth hormones. It has also designed water sterilisation units that will soon move to the manufacturing stage.

‘Products for an ageing population are particularly in demand,’ said Eric Luckwell, Datalink’s managing director. ‘The demographic shift in Europe and the ageing of the baby-boomer generation is driving this. We have developed quite a lot of business from this in the last year and there will be more going forward.’

Luckwell said there is an increasing number of requests to design and manufacture medical devices, which is why the company is now looking to take on new staff.

‘We are currently specifically looking for two engineers, one of whom should have some experience of the medical devices sector,’ he said, adding that there is also potential to take on more recruits in the coming months.

One of these new members of staff will be working with Loughborough University as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership. ‘We are increasingly moving into electronics and rapid manufacture as well as integrating electronics with their casings,’ said Luckwell. ‘Loughborough has a very good rapid manufacturing department, so we go together very well.’

The company also collaborates with Nottingham University, as well as companies such as Rolls-Royce.

Meanwhile, firms dedicated to the medical device market alone are also seeing demand for products. Bespak, a leading manufacturer of metered dose inhaler valves and dry powder inhalers, is looking to recruit manufacturing and quality engineers.

It also welcomes ad hoc enquiries from other engineers with relevant experience. ‘We have a very ambitious growth plan, including acquisition and facility investment plans in the UK over the next three to five years. We need the right people for this,’ said Chris Hall, Bespak managing director. As well as designing its own products, the company has a manufacturing services arm that makes products for other medical firms.

‘At present, around 20 million people across the world with asthma depend daily on the products that we make here in King’s Lynn,’ said Hall. ‘Our staff have a strong emotional connection to our products as they make a real difference to the quality of people’s lives. Ethically, it is extremely worthwhile.’

The company recently received approval for a £5.5m investment for a metered valve capacity expansion and is also scaling up to manufacture and clinical trials of a dose counter for inhalers.

‘The engineering and technology involved is fascinating,’ said Hall. ‘We predict that the market for this could grow from nothing to £25m in the next four to five years.’

The increase in rates of lifestyle- related diseases has also created a strong demand for medical devices such as testing and monitoring systems.

LifeScan is a global medical device company focused on advances in diabetes care. Part of the Johnson and Johnson family of companies, its aim is to remove the limits on normal life experienced by people with diabetes. LifeScan Scotland employs more than 1,300 permanent staff at its Inverness facility.

‘The teams here develop new and enhanced technologies and products in diabetes management and blood glucose monitoring systems,’ said Marie-Louise Shellard, resourcing adviser in the human resources department.

‘It is also where the specialist test strips that work with many of the meters in the One Touch Brand line are manufactured.’

With a focus on future development, LifeScan relies on recruiting and retaining outstanding staff in order to realise this. ‘We have a wide range of engineering needs across quality, operations, facilities and research and development and in disciplines which cover mechanical, software design, hardware design, process, reliability, validation, equipment, lean and product,’ Shellard said. ‘We also recruit graduates into our engineering programmes on an annual basis.’

The facilities in Inverness manufacture established products needed for an increasing number of people with diabetes worldwide as well as developing new technologies and products.

To support this work, the company is constantly looking to recruit and develop internally strong talent with the skills and experience to continuously improve life for its customers.

Despite the ethical benefits and growth potential of the industry, experienced staff can still be difficult to source, something noted by Datalink Electronics.

‘The products are very hi-tech so we need to be able to design in functionality,’ said Luckwell. ‘Although graduates coming from institutions such as Loughborough are very good, we really do need people with experience and this is something that can be harder to find.’

Both Bespak and LifeScan are based outside areas popular with jobseekers, so each has created benefits and strategies to persuade employees to join up.

Bespak’s King’s Lynn base is in a family-friendly area with good direct connections to cities such as Cambridge and London. To encourage applications from outside the immediate area, it has developed a generous relocation package with an allowance that can be put towards buying a local home or a commuter flat, should their family not wish to relocate.

‘The allowance is very flexible,’ said Hall. ‘As a company we are still small enough to be able to adapt to our staff’s needs.’

LifeScan’s Shellard said: ‘As in the rest of the UK, we are experiencing a general shortage of skilled engineers, particularly within the hardware and software specialisms. Inverness is not always on the radar when job hunting, but we usually find that when individuals have been to the facilities and the Highlands and seen the highly successful products and technologies we develop and produce, they have a different perspective about it and cannot wait to join the company.’

LifeScan Scotland can provide all the opportunities of a global company. ‘We offer UK competitive salaries and benefits packages, lots of development opportunities, and also a unique, welcoming lifestyle in the Highland and Islands of Scotland,’ said Shellard.

‘Joining us means more than simply changing jobs. For some, it will mean changing lives.’

With plenty of scope for innovation, high demand for products and a need for an increasing number of skilled staff, the medical devices industry looks set to expand or some time to come, creating benefits for those employed there.

As Bespak’s Hall put it: ‘It is good to work for a successful business, but it is particularly good if this is operating in a growing market.’