Scoring needed talent is often a top-of-mind issue in pharma. But with COVID-19 heaping new pressures on the industry, the underlying challenges of recruitment are shifting.
There are two notable changes in pharma’s talent acquisition landscape, says Alec Rahman-Jones, managing director of the New York office for Phaidon International, a global recruitment agency: Demand and salary.
“We’re seeing an incredible amount of interest and more cash going into the life sciences research sector,” Rahman-Jones says.
All of these investments are translating into a massive growth in open pharma drug development jobs. Between May 2020 and April 2022, EPM Scientific, whose parent company is Phaidon, witnessed an eye-popping 525% increase in the number of vacancies in the R&D space.
And with drug development so hot, Rahman-Jones says compensation has become a larger factor for job candidates than in the past.
“In life sciences, compensation is not always the key driver,” Rahman-Jones says. “People get into this industry because they are interested in the work and the therapies they’re developing. And because it takes so long for products to get to market, it was difficult to engage candidates because they wanted to see that work to the end.”
Now, Rahman-Jones says that many in pharma are realizing that if they don’t make a move to switch jobs, they might miss out on this sudden period of growth — and so they’re on the hunt for new opportunities.
“That’s one of the key differences now,” he explains.
With that said, Rahman-Jones notes that better pay may attract workers to a potential career move, but it’s not what ultimately reels them in.
“What gets them to take the job is leadership and work-based culture,” Rahman-Jones says.
Rahman-Jones also doesn’t expect these issues to change anytime soon.
“The next 18 to 24 months are going to be very buoyant and there is going to be a lot of movement among pharma employees. So, companies need to continue to look at ways to retain and attract staff outside of the money they pay,” he says. “Things will start to normalize a bit … but for now, the pharma industry is going to be very busy as it goes through these transitions and finds its footing [with new employees].”
Because of these emerging variables at play in the job market, Rahman-Jones says it’s time for pharma execs to adjust their approach to winning recruits. To help, here are three misconceptions leaders might need to overcome.
Gauge candidates differently: According to Rahman-Jones, one of the hardest areas to fill jobs is in the cell and gene therapy space. Not only is this space undergoing rapid growth — it’s also an emerging market, which means there are fewer candidates with direct experience in the field.
“Companies often want to see three to five candidates they can compare before making a decision. And we have to tell them that there might not be as many candidates directly in that area,” he says.
Because of this hurdle, Rahman-Jones cautions that finding a good fit often means having an open mind.
“Companies need to be aware that it’s going to be very difficult to find the perfect candidate,” Rahman-Jones says. “And a lot of the time, what they need to look for is people who have a similar skill set that can translate into this space.”
Be flexible about remote work: “During the first six to 12 months of the pandemic, there was still a feeling that everyone would eventually go back into the office,” Rahman-Jones says.
Although many pharma companies have held onto the notion that workers will want to return, Rahman-Jones says that potential employees are instead expecting flexibility. Often, if they don’t find that at a company, they look elsewhere.
“Companies were saying that they were OK with people working remotely at first, but then they expected them to come in or relocate [to be near the office],” he says. “And we saw companies losing a lot of candidates in the last hurdle of the hiring process because of this.”
Rahman-Jones says that his agency has had to tell pharma companies that their competitors are being flexible about remote workers for some positions and if they don’t do the same, they could lose good candidates.
Be more like Big Tech: With the rise of data and tech-driven innovations in pharma, the industry has been on the hunt for experienced employees from Big Tech. Many are happy to leap from tech to pharma because of the satisfaction that can come with working in life sciences.
But to attract employees with the right experience — from data engineers to machine learning experts — Rahman-Jones says that pharma companies must often adjust to the working environment those employees have become accustomed to.
“Tech is such a different industry from pharma, so we’ve been educating clients about what these workers want,” Rahman-Jones says. “They are coming from an environment where they might get free lunches, bean bags to sit on for part of the day, a casual dress code and remote work flexibility.”
Ultimately, Rahman-Jones says it comes back to those key drivers for recruits: workplace culture and leadership.
“It’s about how people feel in the place where they work for 40 to 70 hours a week,” he says. “Those are the reasons someone will want to take a new job.”