Shifting recruitment patterns in the pharma industry

Jul 23, 2013 | Life Science Leader

by Suzanne Elvidge

Changing jobs is a big deal at the best of times for both employers and employees, but as the recession continues in many major markets, this really isn’t the best of times, even for a growing area like the pharmaceutical industry. So how has recruitment in the pharma industry changed, and who actually has the upper hand?

A number of factors have changed the profile of employment, and therefore recruitment, in the pharma industry. These factors range from macro effects such as the financial downturn, to industry and drug-specific issues including mergers and acquisitions, rising drug-development costs, and the impact of the patent cliff, including the growth of biosimilars and biogenerics. All of these have led to job cuts, explains Victor Kleinman, executive vice president and managing director for the global life sciences practice at the U.S.-based executive search organization DHR International. “The downturn has had an impact on R&D, but mostly on the commercial side — roles in licensing, business development, product management, marketing, and sales have taken the major brunt of the layoffs,” says Kleinman.

However, despite all this, some areas are still actively recruiting, such as market access, regulatory affairs, clinical development, and quality assurance, according to Kleinman and Tarquin Bennett-Coles, principal at the United Kingdom- and U.S.-based executive search company Coulter Partners. Newer areas are also growing, such as translational and personalized medicine, as are CROs, as companies are using them more to avoid committing to fixed costs.

The Changing Recruitment Process

As money becomes tighter and staff head counts get smaller, employers are becoming more cautious about hires. As Bennett-Coles explains, “Our clients are asking to see more candidates and needing them to see more people within the organization.”

The upside of this is that it allows the comfort of a consensus agreement, a perceived sharing of financial risk, and time to get more background information on individuals. However, it comes with a downside, too. “While time to shortlist has not markedly changed, the length of the client interviewing process has extended considerably and in many cases may take three months or more before reaching offer stage,” says Bennett-Coles. “This means that the companies that move the quickest will get the candidates.”

From The Candidate’s Perspective

There have been changes for candidates as well as for employers. Shrinking teams are actually creating roles that are more interesting and can improve people’s employability. “Management teams are smaller and working with fewer resources and so clients want people with a much wider spread of skills,” says Bennett-Coles. “This is creating a new layer of candidates with multiple skills who are being stretched more and enjoy the breadth of the role, as each day may be very different.”

It’s no longer just about the lead candidate either. As the time taken for recruitment into senior roles lengthens, it can be vital to have someone waiting in the wings. “During the past year, clients have looked for more backup candidates. While first-line candidates — often from a competitor — may be the closest fit for the client’s recruitment brief, the mere fact that they have been headhunted while not actively looking may make them ask for more from the client. Second-line candidates, who know that they are not the front runners, may be prepared to be more flexible and tend to be more motivated because they have to ‘prove’ themselves to get to the offer stage,” says Bennett-Coles.

However, the longer process can be arduous and stressful for applicants. It can also lead to pharma companies losing good candidates, to the detriment of both parties, and is not sustainable.

“The process could involve up to 15 interviews or more, which can take its toll emotionally on candidates, as well as making it difficult to free up the time needed for travel and interviews. There is more risk of candidates simply having an ‘off day’ at any individual interview and more risk of the news getting out into the wider market that they are ‘looking’,” says Bennett-Coles. “This is not really sustainable; people need to know the length of the process early on and have quick feedback after each meeting.”

Shifting Power

With the increasing number of layoffs, as pharma companies merge and downsize, it would appear that the power is entirely in the hands of the employers. However, it’s not quite that simple. For a start, it depends on the size and status of the company and its reputation within the industry.

“One of the manifestations of the downturn is the level of due diligence that candidates put clients through, such as career opportunities and pipelines,” says Kleinman. “In these times of economic uncertainty, people want certainty.”

What happens within companies on a day-to-day basis also has an impact. Breaking news can lead to issues between the client and the candidate. “The market is now so well-connected that, if anything happens, the news gets out almost instantly. We spend a lot of time managing the candidates and looking after them in the process, which can be highly taxing, to make sure they feel good about the process and company,” says Bennett-Coles.

It also depends on the individuals and how previous companies have treated them, particularly if they have been through redundancy. As Bennett-Coles explains, a lot of these people are not keen on going back into Big Pharma; instead, they are setting up as consultants, or are finding other jobs within smaller organizations.

While executive search is largely global, the balance of power is different in some countries, according to Kleinman. “There are similarities between India and California in the dotcom boom, where the candidates are looking for raises and career advancement at every step. If the employers can’t match the conditions that the potential employees want, they will go elsewhere.”

Peering Through The Glass Ceiling
One of the ongoing issues in pharma recruitment is that of the lack of women in senior-level posts. Despite efforts, this doesn’t seem to have changed much in the past few years. “There are a lot of women in the lower rungs of the pharmaceutical industry, but there are fewer at the higher levels,” says Kay Wardle, U.K. managing director at RSA, which focuses on global executive search and interim management for the life sciences industries.

This may be because women tend to be more involved with childcare or are more likely to be caring for elderly relatives, and so find it hard to combine these responsibilities with an increasingly demanding job. It is aggravated by the lack of women at higher levels to act as role models. Men and women bring different skills to workplaces and boards, and improving gender diversity can bring some very positive outcomes. Because of this, companies are trying to remedy the situation, increasing the number of women joining at higher levels by revising recruitment practices. However, this practice could backfire by reinforcing the perception that women can only get senior roles based on their gender, not their skills.

“Some companies have a quota system, a mandate for recruitment organizations to have at least one female candidate on the shortlist. However, women want to know that they have the job on merit, rather than being the token female,” says Wardle. “There is no quick fix. It needs commitment from the industry and mentors in the business. These would not need to be women, but just people who have seniority, influence, and experience.”

There are differences in different parts of the industry; for example, clinical research and regulatory affairs have more women in senior roles, but areas such as manufacturing and engineering are worse, as Wardle explains. However, she cites biotech as a shining example of how things could work, “There are more senior women in biotech, probably because women are involved from the beginning, and this changes the culture of the company, with more open and more flexible business models.”

Recruitment In The Internet age
The Internet is becoming a powerful tool in pharma recruitment. While candidates can use the Web to research their chosen company, recruiters and HR departments can also find out a lot about their potential employees through networking sites and online CVs. “LinkedIn is very useful. You can tell a lot about people through their connections, and you can use these connections to get information about them,” says Bennett-Coles. This is not always as straightforward as it seems. Different sources of information need to be verified and matched up to make sure that people aren’t hiding gaps, and there are pitfalls as well as advantages, as Bennett-Coles explains. “Young entrepreneurs use Facebook as a key means of communication, but they need to remember that HR professionals will check their profiles. So think … would you put that picture on your CV now or even in five years?”

In The Future
There are changes ahead in the pharma industry, and this will change the kinds of people that companies need to recruit, both in the R&D and commercialization areas. Companies are investing in areas such as translational medicine, with an aim to cut drug development costs and get drugs from the bench to the bedside more efficiently, and in personalized medicine, which will target individual patients with drugs tailored to their disease or genetic makeup, potentially speeding up the drug development process. “There will be a continued willingness to invest in R&D,” says Kleinman. “There will still be a demand for people in regulatory affairs and quality assurance, and companies will need the right kind of professionals in reimbursement and market access to deal with personalized medicine."