New immigrants, international students needed to fuel Canada’s bio-economy - New Canadian Media
Image courtesy of BioTalent Canada, which is predicting an acute worker shortage in the nation’s bio-economy sector.
Image courtesy of BioTalent Canada, which is predicting an acute worker shortage in the nation’s bio-economy sector.

New immigrants, international students needed to fuel Canada’s bio-economy

The demand for talent in Canada's bio-economy is so great that employers are willing to even hire from outside Canada, at a higher cost, if it means tapping into the talent pool of international trained professionals and international students.

Canada’s bio-economy will require about 65,000 additional workers by the end of this decade and companies will be challenged to fill positions due to a highly competitive labour market, states a new nation-wide region-by-region analysis.

The national report by BioTalent Canada, which guides bio-economy stakeholders, states Internationally Educated Professionals (IEPs) and recent immigrants could help fill the gap but currently make up only a small percentage of the bio-economy workforce.

“Newcomers to Canada, with valuable skills, can quickly enter the workforce bringing their diverse perspectives to help access new markets and contribute to solutions,” states the report.

To address the skills needed in the bio-economy up to 2029, BioTalent Canada is calling for a subsidy program for immigrants in order to reduce the perceived risk of hiring new Canadians, as well as new pathways to integrate the talent of international students and IEPs into the labour market.

They are among the key recommendations in today’s regional reports as well as in a national study completed last fall that together unpack the current landscape, trends, challenges and opportunities in Canada’s bio-economy.

The report defines the bio-economy as “the economic activity associated with the invention, development, production and use of primarily bio-based products, bio-based production processes and/or biotechnology-based intellectual property.”

It estimates there are “roughly 12,000 organizations in Canada’s bio-economy (which) collectively employed some 200,000 people in 2019.” 

The field is multidisciplinary in that it cuts across the bio-health, bio-energy, bio-agriculture (agri-bio) and bio-industrial (chemicals and materials) sub-sectors.

“The industry has to develop new strategies focused on breaking down barriers to entry for recent immigrants, Indigenous workers and workers with disabilities — all of whom are seriously under-represented in the bio-economy today,” said BioTalent President and CEO Rob Henderson.

Insufficiently stocked

Today’s analysis on Ontario — and an accompanying report on the Greater Toronto Area — conclude the region will require another 24,500 bio-economy workers by 2029, and that the current talent pipeline is three-quarters empty.

It states women account for an average of roughly one-third (35 per cent) of Ontario bio-economy workers. Other groups have less representation, with IEPs making up 17 per cent of the bio-economy workforce, and recent immigrants (those who have been in Canada less than five years) 9 per cent.

“Immigration is one solution right now. We can hire workers from other countries who are fully trained and have often been doing the job for years, so they’re able to come on board and get up to speed very quickly” — Keith Tucker, senior human resources director at National Resilience, Inc., a Mississauga-based biomanufacturing facility.

“We also want to support programs that encourage Canadian students to specialize in this highly competitive career,” said Tucker, whose company works with researchers, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and governments to help develop and produce a range of experimental and commercialized therapies.

The report on Western Canada — including British Columbia and Alberta — and an accompanying report on Metro Vancouver, similarly conclude that the region’s pipeline is insufficiently stocked to meet demand. 

“It is likely that Western Canada’s biotech industry will lack 18,800 bio-economy workers by 2029, and current estimates indicate there will not be enough workers to meet labour needs,” the report states.

Western Canada accounts for 28 per cent of Canada’s bio-economy, with over 3,800 organizations — mainly small and medium-sized businesses — collectively employing some 48,000 people in 2019.

Decentralizing works

Handol Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Vancouver-based start-up Variational AI, whose innovative machine-learning platform generates novel and optimized molecules and has the potential to eventually cut preclinical drug discovery times from years to months.

“We need cheminformaticians, computational chemists, medicinal chemists and synthetic chemists,” he said.

For Kim, the local skills shortage and the pandemic solidified the idea that a decentralized team can work well.

“It’s the cost of doing business. Uprooting someone from Boston to work in Vancouver is expensive and they won’t be productive for six months. I’d rather pay someone 30 per cent more to stay where they are and contribute right away,” he said.

“We prefer to hire from within Canada, but we’ll hire the right person from anywhere.”

Elsewhere in Canada, today’s reports show Atlantic Canada’s bio-economy is likely to require 3,300 additional workers by 2029; Quebec will require 15,500 additional workers while the Prairies are likely to require 3,400 additional workers over the next 10 years.

Sub-sectors

According to the report, the bio-economy includes “the use of resources from agriculture, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture, organic waste and aquatic biomass” and its “sub-sectors share a common objective: the commercialization of resultant bio-products, processes and/or intellectual property.”

Its subsectors include:

Bio-health

“The bio-health sub-sector encompasses the invention, development, manufacturing, commercialization and use of products that improve therapeutics, diagnostics, prevention and health administration, as well as the development and production of nutraceuticals and applications of medical cannabis. Research and development activities contribute to the development of new products, bio-based technologies and intellectual property related to the production of bio-health products and technologies.”

  • Medical cannabis
  • Medical Devices
  • Biopharmaceuticals
  • Nutraceuticals
  • Natural-compound bioactives
  • Bio-molecules
  • eHealth/Artificial Intelligence

Bio-energy

“The bio-energy sub-sector encompasses the invention, development, production, commercialization and use of renewable fuels through the conversion of organic material into heat or power. Research and development activities contribute to the development of new products, bio-based technologies and intellectual property related to the production of bio-energy.”

  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Methane
  • Bio-oil
  • Sustainable development

Bio-industrial

“The bio-industrial sub-sector encompasses the invention, development, manufacturing, commercialization and use of goods for industrial use, such as bio-chemicals and bio-materials, through the conversion of organic material. Research and development activities contribute to the development of new products, bio-based technologies and intellectual property related to the production of bio-industrial products. Among others, the development and production of biocatalysts are an integral part of this sub-sector.”

  • Biocatalyst
  • Biosolvents
  • Bioplastics
  • Biocoatings
  • Bioadhesives

Agri-biotech

“The agri-bio sub-sector encompasses the invention, development, production, commercialization and use of new or modified products resulting from the manipulation, modification or alteration of the natural features of plants and crops, animals and/ or other food sources. Research and development activities contribute to the development of new products, bio-based technologies and intellectual property that support improved quality, yield and efficiency in the agricultural sector and food production.”

  • Agri-fibre composites
  • Animal Genetics
  • Plant Genetics
  • Livestock Vaccines
  • Animal Nutritional Supplements
  • Functional Foods

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About the author

Business Development Advisor - A multiple-award winning journalist, Fabian Dawson is an internationally acclaimed author, filmmaker and media expert. His work over the last four decades spans the globe and he also serves as a consultant/strategic advisor to a variety of international companies. As deputy editor-in-chief of The Province, part of the Postmedia chain, Dawson led initiatives within a special publications group to provide directed content for a variety of organisations. He was named the 2019 recipient of the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award at Jack Webster Awards. Dawson has been invited by the governments of India, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and the United States to act as a media observer/advisor on a variety of Asian-Canada issues. Dawson, now operates FD Media, which specializes in harnessing editorial assets to revenue generating opportunities.

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