Which innovations are needed for pioneering climate solutions and maximum reuse of plastics in a circular economy? How can we get rid of the corona pandemic for good and for which diseases do we definitely need to find effective medicine? Or how do we ensure that no one goes hungry when there will be more than 10 billion of us? There are many societal challenges for which the chemical, plastics and life sciences sector is constantly looking for answers.
It happens through trial and error, but the innovations of the future are already being worked on today. This is first and foremost human work, and it require diverse talents, both in the control room and the laboratory. Whether these people are technical high-achievers, strong in scientifics, digital whizz-kids or anything else for that matter, within the chemical, plastics and life sciences sectors, women and men are making a genuine difference by constantly striving towards a more sustainable world. Step by step.
Each molecule of a new production process, every discovery of an innovation, every medicine or state-of-the-art material. These are always the sum of the creativity, expertise and skill of humans with various capabilities: scientists, process operators, engineers, technicians, and commercial and auxiliary staff at all levels. Together, they design, build, operate and manage complex industrial installations while simultaneously monitoring safety and quality.
They follow in the footsteps of Belgian researchers and world-renowned entrepreneurs such as Ernest Solvay, Leo Baekeland, Lieven Gevaert, Paul Janssen or Marc Van Montagu. They have left their mark throughout the world on the development of chemistry, plastics, photography, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
Doctor Paul Janssen
Their pioneering work is continued today by more than 95,000 employees in the sector and, thanks to them, all the various molecules find useful applications day after day in all of our daily lives. Together, they ensure that the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are Belgian export and innovation champions and that the sector delivers a substantial contribution to the prosperity and well-being of our country.
Over the years, ‘little’ Belgium has gained a worldwide reputation with respect to chemicals and life sciences. The fact that various corona vaccines and treatments had a clear Belgian ‘stamp’ and were developed, manufactured and then exported by us to all corners of the globe is no coincidence; it is a clear illustration of the expertise and know-how that has been accumulated here over the past few decades.
Almost all leading international chemical and pharmaceutical companies have a production base or research lab in Belgium. Together with numerous start-ups and SMEs, they form a flourishing and fine-knit ecosystem, with a strong connection to the highly regarded universities and leading research centres within our country’s borders. This makes the chemical and pharmaceutical industries one of the strongholds of Belgium’s industry and economy.
If the sector wishes to continue playing a leading role in the coming decades, the bar must be set high and there must be continued investments in the vital raw materials, i.e. human capital. The sector’s ambitions are realised on a daily basis by a large group of well-educated, motivated and committed employees and entrepreneurs. These people won’t just stumble upon you by chance because the demand for talent is ever-increasing.
It is not just the number of jobs that continues to rise year on year; 1 in 3 employees are now older than 50 and this ageing population will have a huge impact in the coming decades. Furthermore, disruptive evolutions such as digitalisation, the climate transition, and other technological innovations will lead to an increasing need for ongoing training and education for employees and job seekers in order to guarantee them a sustainable career in the chemicals and life sciences sector.
These structural recruitment and training needs go hand in hand with a profound competency mismatch and a tightness in the labour market. Technical and scientific STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) are a breeding ground for the skills that are desperately required by the chemicals and pharmaceutical industry both today and tomorrow. However, compared to other industrialised nations, we are quite weak when it comes to the in and outflow of youngsters in these study areas, particularly with respect to girls. And all while we have an urgent need for female role models to make the previously mentioned list of Belgian scientists and entrepreneurs less exclusive to men.
The promotion of STEM studies, from infant schools to the universities, therefore remains a lifelong mission. In this context, industry must also focus on stubborn image and perception problems too. For many young people, chemistry seems to be an abstract science and the link to many applications and consumer goods in their daily lives, from smartphones to sneakers, is insufficiently clear. Furthermore, industrial activity often has an overwhelmingly negative image among the younger generations.
The challenge is clear: make innovations more concrete and intelligible, in a language and manner that better connects into the world of youngsters. In an innovative approach, the chemicals and life sciences sector must choose to put young employees in the foreground and utilise them as genuine STEM-fluencers. In the classroom and on social media. The sector would also like to use strategic partnerships with scientific activity centres such as SPARKOH! and Technopolis, and bridge-builders between education and industry such as the Regional Technological Centres (RTCs) and Vlajo, to appeal to young people and demonstrate that choosing STEM offers numerous opportunities for interesting and useful jobs in which they can make a real difference to our society.
STEM study areas, however, not only have to deal with a lack of appeal or a dull image, it is also a genuine challenge to ensure that STEM education evolves along with the latest scientific insights and innovations. The need for additional courses and increased professionalism among tutors, new didactic materials and top quality infrastructure requires a fundamental reorganisation of teaching methods, at all educational levels.
In secondary education in Flanders, the sector has really put itself on the map as a leading light with one of the most successful dual learning routes in TSO training Chemical Process techniques, with the number of pupils having quadrupled. Dual learning is now further expanding to include higher education so that young people acquire technical knowledge but also social skills, such as learning to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams.
In Wallonia, the federation has developed several dual learning courses in partnership with the aptaskil competence centre, the IFAPME and the Haute École Louvain in Hainaut. Students can for example follow a master’s degree in production management or a master’s degree in analytical engineering as a dual learning. Jobseekers can enrol in a technician or production operator training course in the biopharmaceutical or chemical industry. Around a hundred people benefit from these courses and training programmes each year.
More work placements with a longer duration and tailor-made to the industry could also serve as a useful method for improving the connection between labour attitudes and the industrial culture. Schools and businesses must work together even more frequently and effectively, e.g. via company visits during school time or learning placements when tutors can test the most recent technological evolutions and understand the corresponding, required skills.
This exchange does not have to be limited to secondary education. Such cross-fertilisation with industry is also particularly valuable at colleges and universities. More mobility between academia and industry offers students the opportunity to gain practical industrial experience, both at home and abroad. And we must not be scared to attract foreign talent. In order to take learning to the next level, with an eye on the digital transition, it is also essential to effectively integrate innovative didactic applications such as virtual reality and digital learning platforms in the classroom.
For chemicals, plastics, pharma and biotech, it is hugely important to not only attract more well-trained people but also to attract a more diverse range of talents to the industry. The sector can only be socially relevant and fully develop its human capital potential if it is also inclusive and connects all the various talents with one another. The idea that science and technology is not for girls is a stubborn preconception. And despite a vast multicultural talent base, Belgium still has an excessively large gap between people from different backgrounds.
More than ever before, the sector has to expand its appeal by communicating clearly and providing inspiration customised to high-achievers from various target and disadvantaged groups. Diversity must also be prioritised in the labour-market initiatives taken by the sector. The chemicals and life sciences sector must also expand expertise in the coming years in the areas of diversity, non-discrimination and inclusion. At the moment, we are just not reaching out to all communities.
Working on the basis of a thorough analysis of the current level of diversity within the sector and the possible pitfalls that inhibit inclusion, the sector must also seek out the most suitable activities for raising awareness and self-regulation in order to attract and retain a broader range of talent. To this end, we can apply the practical experience of a few leading lights in diversity in chemicals and pharma and in powerful traditions such as the SIRA project in the Antwerp region that has been retraining young, disadvantaged children to become process operators for the chemical industry since 1987.
For an innovative sector, however, activity must not stop at simply attracting diverse and well-trained talent. A sustainable career means the opportunity for lifelong learning with relevant courses and plans through all phases of your working life. The demand for new insights and competencies is exceptionally high in the high-tech sector of chemicals, plastics and pharmaceuticals.
Employees must learn the green skills that are required to get the circular economy on track, whereby the reuse of raw materials and energy is centralised. They must train in digital skills or the latest technologies and scientific developments in order to keep up with increasing automation, digitalisation and the use of robotics. It is only through the development of good soft skills that they will be able to collaborate in new, flexibly organised, self-managing project teams.
Sector builds very first training centre for pharmaceuticals and biotech in Flanders with ViTalent
These training centres and employment campaigns, and the collaboration with the training fund Co-valent are the result of a long tradition of social dialogue in a sector that formed the basis for the Social Pact right after the Second World War. This constructive relationship between employer and employee organisations will be developed in the Demographic Fund whereby the sector can offer pragmatic answers to social evolutions and the ageing population.
The Demographic Fund offers support and finance for various measures relating to rewarding work and sustainable employability in the relevant companies. The focus is on four areas of action: work, health, skills and career policy. This often involves customisation at business level so that employees can continue to carry out their jobs in a realistic and motivating manner.
These sector-based initiatives illustrate how a constructive social dialogue can deliver concrete results which offer opportunities to employees at all levels, prioritise teamwork, offer perspective for interesting careers, connect various talents, and encourage lifelong learning. All with the collective goal of more effectively positioning the chemicals and life sciences industry as an attractive sector in which to work and innovate, irrespective of age, gender, preferences, background, limitations or social background. After all, sustainability is primarily a job for humans too.