Just what the doctor ordered

The pharmaceutical industry is the UK’s third most profitable activity, while our medical device market is one of the world’s largest. This means a healthy future for engineers in these sectors, says Julia Pierce.

The UK’s pharmaceutical and medical devices industry is huge, and still growing. According to government figures, around 650 million prescriptions are written in the UK each year by GPs alone, at a cost of approximately £7bn.

After finance and tourism, the pharmaceutical industry represents the UK’s third most profitable economic activity and accounts for 10 per cent of global research and development expenditure.

Meanwhile, figures from business intelligence specialist Espicom, shows that the UK also has one of the world’s largest medical device markets — this year valued at £4.7bn. While the European market is the second largest in the world after the US, the UK ranks only behind France and Germany as a consumer — hardly surprising, given that the NH is the world’s biggest healthcare provider. Together the two are already formidable, but are set to further increase their power, providing a valuable source of job opportunities.

The increasingly ageing UK population, coupled with rising consumer demands means that the market for drugs and devices to treat conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and their complications will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. The demand is not only limited to the clinical market consisting of hospitals and doctors — the demand for home remedies and devices such as wellbeing diagnostic kits is also growing. With the help of skilled design engineers, healthcare companies are ensuring that these must not only perform well, but must also look appealing.

The days when engineering opportunities within the sector were limited are long gone. engineers are no longer solely involved in building infrastructure, maintenance and facility management. Instead, the boundary between medical devices and pharmaceuticals has become blurred by the development of modern products such as coated biocompatible implants and cost-efficient, high-volume disposable products.

This has opened up employment opportunities across a number of disciplines as engineers have been required throughout the research and development phase.

‘The pharmaceutical industry accounts for a quarter of the entire research expenditure by the UK manufacturing sector and, therefore, can offer a diverse range of global career opportunities,’ said 3M healthcare European operations manager Dave Walls.

Though the pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been the domain of chemists, pharmacists and microbiologists, the sector has more recently opened up — particularly to chemicals and process engineers.

In the past few years, employment in Europe’s chemical industry has declined. Faced with low demand and high raw material prices, chemical companies have cut costs and jobs to keep their heads above water.

However, companies such as AstraZeneca and GSK are actively working to ensure that chemicals engineers are involved earlier on in the process development for the pharmaceutical industry, before formulations for drugs are finalised. This will allow them to ensure that the resulting product has exactly the properties it needs to — uniform release, for example, something that is both hard and expensive to alter once a formulation has entered the clinical trials phase.

Meanwhile, in the medical device sector electrical engineers are increasingly being required to develop devices with wireless capabilities to combat heart disease and deafness, while the growing field of nanotechnology, showing promise in delivering everything from targeted drugs to highly- precise surgical implements, is drawing in staff from diverse engineering backgrounds.

Not only must complex devices be well designed, but they must also be properly supported, and this requires mechanical engineers to be on hand to resolve quality problems such as possible malfunctions, add features and manage upgrades in response to customer demand.

‘Engineering plays a critical role in supporting the discovery, development and manufacture of medicines, too. So clearly, we will have an ongoing need for engineers, although future demand is always difficult to predict,’ said Jez Chance, recruitment communications manager for AstraZeneca.

‘We recruit engineers at all levels, including apprentices and graduates, employing engineers from a wide range of disciplines, including civil, mechanical, electrical, manufacturing process and chemical.’

However, the diverse range of available careers is not perhaps as well known as it should be among those following an engineering career.

‘Pharmaceuticals is a sector that engineers often overlook,’ said Carolyn Mason, professional excellence manager, global manufacturing and supply at GlaxoSmithKline. ‘The reality is that we have challenging work for engineers across a range of disciplines and are actively working to raise awareness of the opportunities on offer — for example, we are a major corporate sponsor of the Frank Morton sporting event for chemical engineering undergraduates, and a supporter of the IChemE awards.’

With demand for engineers growing across all sectors in the UK, healthcare is having to work hard to combat a shortage of high-calibre technical staff. According to a report by recruitment company Blue Pelican Group earlier this year, 79 per cent of pharmaceutical recruitment consultants surveyed said they are currently experiencing recruitment issues caused by low numbers of experienced staff being available to fill vacant positions. In response, the healthcare industry is ensuring that workers have access to a range of benefits as well as good salaries.

‘GSK has a commitment to ongoing professional development for its staff,’ said Mason. ‘We finance study towards chartership and other relevant qualifications and a number of our sites offer the mentored professional development programmes accredited by IChemE and IMechE.’

The company operates across the world, with around 9,000 UK-based staff in its manufacturing facilities. GSK employs engineers from various disciplines, and while the majority are involved with chemicals and processing, there are also employees with responsibility within the instrumentation, control, automation, mechanical and electrical disciplines.

But as with all industries, there are skills gaps. One example is a shortage of manufacturing engineers, as flagged up by medical device manufacturers 3M. ‘We don’t seem to be attracting manufacturing engineers or other engineers that would like to go into manufacturing,’ said Louise Douglas, human resources manager at 3M Healthcare’s Atherstone office.

‘The numbers coming in through our recruitment campaigns seem to be smaller and smaller,’ she said. ‘This might be due to the perception of the UK’s manufacturing sector as having no future. However, for those joining, 3M has a great benefits package and as its operations are diverse there is good scope for working elsewhere in the company — I was originally an engineer myself.’

‘Regardless of the discipline, engineers with project management expertise, strong team-working and leadership skills will always be in short supply,’ said AstraZeneca’s Chance.

‘Our reward and benefits schemes are designed to meet varied and changing employee needs by introducing individual choice and flexibility. In addition, our major sites enjoy high quality of life locations close to a wide range of urban and recreational opportunities.’

Across the country, it seems that people’s increasing needs and expectations from the NHS and the growing private medical sector mean that engineers employed within the medical device and pharmaceutical sector can look forward to a busy future. Not only this, but they will find it easy to see how their work is bringing measurable benefits to the public.

As Chance said: ‘We provide a range of leading medicines for important areas of human need, so working as a pharmaceutical engineer means you are helping to improve the quality of peoples’ lives.’