The pharmaceutical industry has changed a lot in recent years. The rules and regulations surrounding development and marketing of new medicines are ever increasing, with new innovations and technologies developing the drug manufacturing process. For example, digitalisation, and the subsequent drive towards ‘smart’ production systems, has been a point of convergence within the pharmaceutical industry, with a focus on data, automation, and real-time monitoring to improve efficiencies and time to market.
All of this means apprentices entering the field are not only facing new challenges, but also new opportunities compared to those who started their career a number of years ago.
Below, parents and their children who both working at Sterling Pharma Solutions, a global contract development and manufacturing organisation, explore how careers in the pharmaceutical industry have changed in the decades between them entering the industry in the early stages of their careers.
With automated processes on the rise across multiple industries, reducing human error and increasing efficacy, McKinsey found digitisation within industry has allowed for a 65%+ reduction in overall deviations, with over 90% faster closure times.
Roland Smith, who joined Sterling in 1978 as a Production Chemist, and is now a Process Control Manager at the company, explains: “I have seen a huge growth in production due to automation over the last 45 years of my career at Sterling. As a result of automated processes, we can now achieve more in less time and with less burden on resources.”
Throughout his career at Sterling, Roland has been responsible for developing process control systems and new ways to evolve and improve process control software, often utilising automation to improve efficiencies and customer outcomes: “Using automation means we see more consistency in processes. If something is programmed correctly, it will always work in the same way and produce the same results, or very similar, again and again.”
Andy Borthwick, Operations Engineering Manager, who joined Sterling in 1985 as an Electrical Apprentice, agrees: “There’s a lot more automation on site than there used to be. Everything is computerised and involves a lot more complex equipment.” His son, Adam, joined Sterling in 2021 as an Electrical and Instrumentation (E&I) Apprentice. Andy adds: “As someone that joined Sterling as an apprentice nearly 40 years ago, and someone that has a lot of involvement with training and developing our apprentices, it seems that today, an apprenticeship is a harder pathway. There’s a lot more they need to learn and digest on plant as a result of developments in technology and the digitisation of processes. It wasn’t as complex when I was Adam’s age.”
Roland remarks that assisting his daughter Anna with her apprenticeship, which she began at Sterling in 2017, has highlighted to him even further, how much the sector has changed since he began his career: “The regulatory requirements are far more rigorous now, and it’s vital to stay up to date with the latest guidance, as it is constantly changing and evolving.”
Paul Wright, Head of Project and Process Engineering, who first joined Sterling in 1990 agrees: “The regulatory side of things is what I would say has changed the most over the years, especially in the time between my son Jack and I starting in the industry. It’s becoming more stringent as the years go on, and we are constantly seeing more audits from various global bodies.”
Andy Borthwick and his son, Adam, have also noticed a growing culture of safety in the industry. Andy says: “I’ve always felt safe working in the pharmaceutical industry, but the culture has evolved since I joined, and I was Adam’s age. Safety comes first and foremost, as a result of learnings that have come over time, with many more regulations in place to keep people safe at work.”
Adam agrees: “Behavioural reviews are a big thing at Sterling in terms of supporting apprentices, particularly from a health and safety perspective. We have these regular reviews with our Talent Acquisition team to make sure we are up to date with all the latest training, which wasn’t as common when my dad was my age.”
Andy Stephens, Head of Business Systems, joined Sterling in 1998. At the time, his father was the Planning Manager at Sterling and Andy had spent time on work experience in the quality control labs, before securing his position as a Scale-up Lab Technician Apprentice. In 2020, Andy’s son, Kobi, joined Sterling as a Warehouse Admin Apprentice and now works as a Material Controller. Andy says: “GMP manufacturing and the surrounding regulations have always been a big thing, but they have become progressively more stringent over the years. There’s been a huge shift around health and safety culture since I first began my career.”
Although findings from YouGov and The Times revealed that only 4% of Britons believe a university degree is the best option, university degrees still have a significantly higher uptake than apprenticeships for young people.
“A lot of people think because you’re on an apprenticeship, you can’t go into higher education, but you certainly can now,” explains Jack, who has completed both a degree and a master’s qualification following his apprenticeship. He says: “Learning on the job, and being able to apply what you learn in classes to the real world, is really helpful for your career.”
Paul agrees with his son, saying: “The ability to apply the knowledge and the practical skills learnt massively help with development and learning.
“The skills and roles needed on a chemical plant like ours are so diverse, and even though I stuck with engineering, there is the opportunity to branch out into other areas. You don’t have to strictly follow the path your apprenticeship has started you on and Sterling is incredibly willing to support you on that.”
Paul continues: “I started as an apprentice, and I’m now part of our Dudley site’s senior leadership team, so it just goes to show the different career paths and possibilities available to you as a Sterling apprentice and the company’s willingness to support your development.”
Kobi, who passed his Business Administration apprenticeship in December 2022 and works as part of Sterling’s warehouse team, has since been getting involved with the Projects team: “This new opportunity has provided me with a chance to explore other pathways that are available to me within the business.”
Jack also acknowledges the opportunities he knew he could benefit from as a result of an apprenticeship and witnessing his father, Paul’s journey: “I knew from my dad’s career at Sterling that I would learn a lot here due to the diversity of the skills required on site. The Dudley site is so diverse from an E&I perspective with opportunities to learn so much, from small scale research and development to 3,000 gallon main plant reactors, which helps me to build upon my career and current skills.”
Andy Borthwick agrees with Paul and Jack: “Adam has the potential to be a technician on the plant like I did or to take a completely different career path as a result of the opportunities offered at Sterling. Our apprentices are given the chance to work in all departments to see where their skills lie best, which really allows our apprentices to grow. They gain a wide variety of knowledge from hands on experience and academic training, alongside continuous professional development, which I don’t think can be achieved as easily via other academic routes.
“Not only are there multiple learning and development opportunities as part of an apprenticeship, but you also have the chance to build friendships. Some of the people I met on my first day as an apprentice here in 1985 are still some of my good friends today, which just shows how much of a strong, teamworking mentality there is here.”
Similarly, Anna highlights the benefit of learning whilst working: “I knew that an apprenticeship could provide the possibility for further development down the line. In addition to on the job learning and development opportunities, there are so many other chances awarded to you, including off the job learning. I have been invited to events where I have been able to network with other people in the industry and have attended webinars and seminars which allow me to keep up to date with trends, which can benefit both the organisation and my personal development.”
In 2017, Anna followed in her father’s footsteps and joined Sterling to support the process control department with documentation. She went on to apply for an E&I apprenticeship, and today, Anna is currently studying a degree apprenticeship, due for completion in 2026. Roland, now retired from Sterling, also completed an HNC/HND qualification in E&I in 2014, and explains: “It was very hard, and I don’t think that I’d be able to do what Anna has to do now!”
As described by Sterling’s current apprentices and their parents, apprenticeships have demonstrably changed over the years to keep pace with industry. As a result, the opportunities they provide continue to grow and reap benefits, including more access to off-site networking opportunities, experiences within a variety of roles and departments across the business to find their passions, as well as chances to earn while they study higher qualifications funded by the organisation to further their careers.