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ATD Blog

Improving Onboarding in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Many challenges are affecting the pharmaceutical industry labor market, specifically in manufacturing. Fewer graduates in applicable fields, a large pre-existing vacancy in skilled positions, and a significant predicted growth rate of new jobs in the industry all contribute to our need to focus on how to recruit, and more importantly retain, talent. In this market, retention of those hired begins as soon as they have their first contact with the company. For those of us in good manufacturing process (GMP) training, our first contact is typically onboarding. And even though hiring managers are desperate to get these new staff members on the floor and productive, those first few months—yes, months—are usually anything but efficient. Many of us are familiar with a typical pharmaceutical manufacturing onboarding program:

  • HR and IT orientation. This is usually a string of emails, maybe a slide presentation about the company and available healthcare and social resources, then a quick interaction with someone from IT who hands the new hire a laptop and shows them how to reset their password. This is often capped off with a site tour.
  • Safety training. Next up at a manufacturing site is typically safety training. This can range from a few e-learning modules to a morning with a site safety officer in a hard hat and reflective vest, covering various topics with materials often older than the trainees they are presented to.
  • Intro to GMP. At this point, the site training team engages with the new hire and reviews why we need GMP, examples from our history when GMP didn’t exist and the horrors that ensued, and the wonders of implementing a quality management system.
  • High-level good documentation practices (GDP) or data integrity training. As part of GMP training, or possibly separated into its own set of lectures, we drill into our new hires how important data is to the validity of our products. We preach concepts like ALCOA (attributable, legible, contemporaneous, original, and accurate), try and remind people how to round numbers with decimals, and display examples of how to fix mistakes.
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs). Then, it’s off to a desk for the next few weeks (or months) wading through a hundred or two SOPs.

While some companies have improved this process incrementally over the years, I’m sad to say that at most companies I’ve worked for in the past decade, I have not walked out of these early days of onboarding thinking to myself, “Wow, I can’t wait to start my job-specific training!”

Instead, if the new hire is lucky, within the first three months, someone will find the time to give them gowning training. More likely, they will gown up with an escort and chip away at on-the-job training (OJT) they may not need to perform independently for months. Unfortunately, OJT rarely happens in a logical order, often due to the current stage of the batch, and because new hires have to be escorted, they are at the mercy of the availability of their peers and supervisor. This very typical scenario often leaves new associates questioning their decision to take the job in the first place and puts pressure on existing employees, who often have little or no time to bring new hires along.

So, what’s the solution? If your onboarding program resembles what I’ve just described, commit to incremental improvements that will quickly have a positive impact on:

  • Quality and safety
  • Manufacturing productivity
  • Employee satisfaction and confidence
  • Scheduling
  • And, of course, the ever-important connection between trainees and the training team

While there are many important pieces of a good onboarding program, nothing I’ve seen has a better impact on the first three months of a new hire’s tenure than addressing personal hygiene first, then getting new hires gowning qualified by week two. Gowning should be followed by another qualification they can apply immediately, like area clearance, similar equipment operation, or material handling skill. By performing at least two such qualifications in the first month, you will do more than simply improve the proverbial “door to floor” time. Instead, you will slash the “door to DO” time and get new team members empowered to contribute to the organization while they are still trying to figure out the best time to avoid lines at the cafeteria. The real trick is deciding who performs these qualifications and when.

Often, all or most qualifications are led by supervisors or peers, opportunistically. In my experience, the “opportunistically” part of this process simply does not produce the desired results. Timing and class size can cause delays, as operations and manufacturing staff often have competing priorities or find it wasteful to train just one person. Even worse, training consistency will vary from person to person and suite to suite, resulting in repetitive mistakes and bad habits. The solution? Get your L&D team qualified to perform the gowning qualification, and while that’s happening, spend face-to-face time with the manufacturing and quality operations staff to identify what other OJT your team can perform during onboarding.


Resist the urge—and recommendations from other people—to have qualified people in those groups perform the training. They are simply too busy and often dealing with the inevitable fire drills that threaten the release of a batch, making them unreliable. Your L&D team doesn’t have to be comprised of microbiologists or twenty-year pharmaceutical professionals to learn and teach these fundamental skills. Train them, have them do it over and over with as many people as possible, and then schedule your first training delivery for new hires. Don’t worry if each suite has a separate gowning procedure—have your L&D team learn them all, and a few months later, start the campaign to combine them into one.

The L&D team’s schedule for performing these qualifications should be predictable and published. If you typically bring on new hires every other week, your trainings should follow that schedule. If new hires start randomly, base your schedule on historical volumes. Don’t be concerned about small classes; instead, develop your schedule to avoid large, unmanageable class sizes. Whatever you decide, publish it and stick to it. If you have a training class of one or two, deliver it anyway. You want your site to know you will always deliver when planned, and doing so avoids the tendency to start slipping into the “opportunistically” bad habit. Over time, supervisors will start to adjust and adapt to your regular and predictable offerings.

When implementing even the most basic qualification early, I’ve always seen positive results. The new hires remain enthusiastic and motivated. They immediately understand how they will add value and work alongside their peers. Supervisors are thrilled, too. Having the L&D team take on these first few qualifications gets their new hires on the floor quickly. And, it connects them to their training team in a constructive way, showing them the concrete benefits of training, not just the punitive measures associated with late training completion. Finally, of course, management is delighted that the money spent on these new hires does not stagnate with someone sitting in front of a laptop reading procedures day after day.


The results:

  • Shortened door to do time
  • Higher productivity
  • Increased employee satisfaction and autonomy
  • Improved connections with manufacturing and quality associates
  • Greater visibility into areas for improvement and opportunities for training

The labor market is getting tighter and tighter, and we’re excited to see the growth in new positions at manufacturing sites. But we know losing a new hire within the first six months is wildly expensive for the company and means supervisors desperate to fill positions and existing staff who cannot perform their best while covering for open positions. The solution begins with directly engaging your training team in the delivery of key initial qualifications for new hires and getting them from door to do in the first couple weeks, not months.

And if you’re lucky, supervisors who no longer have time for new hires to sit around reading SOPs for three months will ask, “Can we do something about all this wasteful read-and-understand training next?” For a training department, there is nothing better than having your site knock on your door and ask to collaborate on another new program or solution!

About the Author

Christian Torstensson, an educational consultant at The Atlantec Group, boasts a diverse career journey. Beginning as a public-school teacher, he has served in multiple leadership roles including director of learning and development and global head of GmP Training across hardware, software, medical device, and pharmaceutical sectors. Christian champions productive onboarding, streamlined system implementations, and learner-focused programing. His expertise centers on simplifying learning processes and managing content and data with a strict eye on compliance and quality. As a strategic leader and guide, Christian aims to help organizations deliver timely, manageable, and effective education for all.

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