Laboratory Automation Needs a Better Talent Pipeline

January 31, 2023  |  Trends

When you think of laboratory automation, you probably picture massive labs filled with robots, conveyor belts, and other equipment. What’s missing from that picture is the highly skilled people needed to design, implement, and maintain those installations.

Laboratory automation is being held back by a lack of qualified experts. Our highly specialized field doesn’t enjoy the same reliable pipelines of talent coming out of academia as other engineering fields. One client told us that for every five automation engineer positions open, there’s just one person available.

As a community, we need to prioritize the development of better career pathways into this field. How can we work with academia to prepare students for the demands of laboratory automation? How can we attract bright young minds to the rewarding work we do every day?

The challenge

This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight. But understanding the challenge is a good place to start. While most engineers are trained to work with hardware or software — or occasionally both — the laboratory automation field requires proficiency in hardware, software, and science. It’s the need for all three that really shrinks the potential talent pool.

Hiring traditional mechanical engineers and having to teach them the science on the job is incredibly difficult. Understanding what has to happen in a workflow — and why certain processes need special conditions — is such an essential part of laboratory automation that it’s usually easier for scientists to pick up coding or engineering skills than it is for hardware or software engineers to learn all they need to know about biology.

That’s why most technical experts in the lab automation field started out in science. They’re often people who worked in biology labs, got introduced to automation through their jobs, and were curious and driven enough to want to learn more. In time, these scientists become automation engineers, capable of designing, installing, and supporting even the most complex installations.

Thinking through solutions

But it’s not exactly a practical recruitment strategy to wait around and hope that more bench scientists will catch the automation bug.

Build teams of cross-functional teammates

Until we have a more robust pipeline of new talent coming into the field, the best option is to build automation engineering teams where all required skills are represented, even if they don’t exist in the same person.

If you have enough generalists, your automation team can be relatively small and cross-functional. But if everyone is truly specialized, you’ll need more people on the team to cover all of the skills required for a large project. And that’s another issue — laboratory automation projects are so customized that it’s rare to build a single team capable of tackling every installation or support need. Instead, it can be more helpful to think of them as tactical teams, pulled together to address one specific project and then disbanded when that project is complete, with each team member available to form new tactical teams for future projects that arise.

Of course, environment matters too. A small biotech company tasked with building an automation engineering team to support its own infrastructure can hire a small group of people who might work together for years, while an automation company like ours needs a lot more people to support a broad range of laboratory needs.

Host lab automation internships

One of the most successful ways that we’ve nurtured new talent for the industry is by bringing in interns from high schools and universities who are in a range of related fields. We promote our internships to students in the sciences and also a range of engineering disciplines.

Once we’ve taken on an intern, we’re committed to putting them to work on real-life lab automation projects, giving them exposure to the career path that’s out there, with all its rich benefits and rewarding challenges.

Ultimately, through hands-on internships, we’ve been able to hire talented people who might never have heard of our industry.

Support robotics clubs

Another critical way that we nurture interested minds is by supporting robotics clubs, with financial donations, donations of old robotic hardware, and by helping to lead activities. We support kids who have already decided to spend their time working on robotics projects, and we want to be present in showing them how they can turn their interest into a full-time job. We frequently bring in clubs and students to check out the Biosero Acceleration Lab, giving them the vision for how robotics can come together to help science solve problems.

Want to learn more?

Here at Biosero, we work closely with our customers and colleagues in the laboratory automation community to support better education at all levels to help fill the talent gap. If you’re interested in learning more about a career in laboratory automation, check out this blog resource or contact us.

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