| 14 minute read |
The global focus on the life sciences sector during the past two years has been both a blessing and a burden for the industry. On one hand, key pharmaceutical manufacturers that battled the pandemic received unprecedented levels of financial and regulatory support to drive the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. At the same time, these companies faced enormous pressures to achieve what has never been done before and were forced to reprioritize their product focus under intense scrutiny.
As threats from the pandemic begin to decline around the world, demand for the life sciences industry’s products and services has not, as studies predict sector growth rates higher than the global GDP over the next several years. The need for medical innovation is as urgent today as it was during the height of the global crisis. The race to develop new drug molecules, the growing demand for breakthrough medical devices and the explosive growth of diagnostics have placed tremendous burdens on human capital leaders to find not only traditional R&D skills but digital ones as well. As medicine becomes more personalized — relying on data and bespoke treatments — the life sciences industry has opportunities to grow tremendously in the years ahead, but it will be competing for the same skills as industries around them.
To take advantage of these opportunities, life sciences companies require resourceful workforce planning today and tomorrow, as dynamic forces reshape the pharma, biopharm, medtech and diagnostics industries. This won’t be easy in today’s tight labor market.
treat the talent scarcity and hiring challenges
Randstad Sourceright’s Talent Trends survey of C-suite and human capital leaders in the life sciences and pharma sector found that one-third (33%) say talent scarcity is a major pain point. It is the most often cited challenge they face this year. A majority (55%) also plan to hire extensively this year. The top reason for adding headcount? To avoid talent scarcity that would slow their business (45%).
As a recession-proof business, the U.S. life sciences employment base rose 1.4% in 2020, even as the total private sector lost 5.1% in the first year of the pandemic. Leading the sector was the research, testing and medical laboratory business, which saw an increase of 2.7%, followed by pharmaceuticals makers (1.7%) and bioscience-related distribution. In the U.K., job growth was even stronger, rising to 268,000 in 2020, an increase of 3.7%.
As in many other STEM-driven businesses, innovation will require future skills that are just emerging or that have not yet come about. And, with talent shortages growing — especially for highly technical professionals in areas such as data analytics/engineering, cloud computing and artificial intelligence — life sciences employers must elevate their strategies to win the competition for talent both within and outside their industry. Failure to attract, engage and hire top candidates will likely create a lasting and significant setback for some businesses.
demand for data skills skyrockets
In the post-pandemic era, life sciences and pharma companies are refocusing on areas of growth that had been deprioritized due to the global pandemic response. In 2021, drug makers produced 11 billion COVID-19 vaccines, the largest immunization campaign in human history. While vaccinations continue to be administered this year, their numbers will likely be far lower than the year before.
For many pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical manufacturers, this means they can reprioritize traditionally in-demand therapeutic areas such as immunology, oncology and neurology, which are among the fastest-growing drug categories. As a result, the global pharmaceutical industry is expected to markedly surpass its $1.45 trillion valuation in 2021 to $2.1 trillion in 2026, according to one report.
Such growth isn’t possible without sufficient access to talent, and the drug industry’s workforce is expanding accordingly. According to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, overall employment in the industry rose 18% to 830,000 in the decade from 2010 to 2020. Skills such as data analytics and engineering are witnessing a surge in demand, especially in the U.S., which accounts for the majority of data jobs in the world.
Bioinformatics — a specialty field defined as a scientific subdiscipline that uses computer technology to collect, store, analyze and disseminate biological data and information — is used throughout the drug discovery process. This field is projected to grow 16.3% CAGR from 2022 to 2030 to a market value of $45.6 billion. In addition, genomics, predictive analytics and precision medicine are advancing disease preventive treatment. At the same time, digital health solutions are being developed to further improve patient care.
As a result, the demand for data skills is skyrocketing. The pool of talent in some key markets is robust but scarce in others, as the Randstad Sourceright 2021 Global Future In-demand Skills Report shows. In China, which produces the most STEM graduates in the world, an abundant supply of qualified data science professionals are available. Our report estimates there are 249 candidates available for each open data science role in this market. At the other end of the spectrum, however, in Hong Kong, there are only seven candidates available for each job ad, and in the U.S., only 12 (50:1 or lower is considered highly competitive).
Beyond data science, the pharmaceutical industry is undergoing important developments that will impact its need for skilled talent in the months and years ahead. For instance, novel cell and gene therapies are driving a renaissance in biopharm innovation. Plentiful funding from investors is helping startups as well as late-stage developers to drive more research in areas such as RNA-based therapeutics. This translates into higher demand for research and other talent needed to bring innovation to market.
Innovative drugs alone won’t significantly improve patient well-being. A key trend in the business is the proliferation of integrated care, a holistic approach that encompasses both administering of drugs and monitoring of patient outcomes. Working more closely with healthcare providers and patients themselve, drugmakers will need more talent who are focused on people rather than on research. At the same time, the need for digital skills is also growing due to the digitalization of the business.
medtech opportunities rise on aging demographics
Even as the pharmaceutical industry focuses on new and innovative therapies, the medical device business is equally busy identifying new growth opportunities. With the global medtech industry expected to grow from $434 billion in 2021 to $625 billion by 2027 at a CAGR of 6.3%, demand for talent will be equally strong.
Driven by the consumerization of the business, increasing connectivity in product design and demand for orthopedic devices for an aging yet active demographic, medtech manufacturers also face a talent gap that will be challenging to overcome. Life sciences and pharma employers are competing for many of the high-demand skills as the IT & communications sector. These skills include:
- AI and machine learning
- augmented and virtual reality
- cloud computing
- data science
- internet of things
- robotic process automation
- user interface/experience design
Like drugmakers, medtech businesses face an explosion in data as more products become connected, utilized and managed remotely. According to one market report, connected medical devices are expected to grow 19% CAGR until 2027. From continued growth in robotic surgery and wearable monitoring devices to implantables, this group of technologies will continue to drive the need for data scientists and data engineers in the medtech sector.
Additionally, soft skills are increasingly important to life sciences employers who are ramping up hiring for project managers, sales and product marketing professionals, executive leaders and others. As the medical device industry goes down the same path as its pharma counterparts, providing integrated healthcare solutions will require workers with customer experience, an understanding of UX principles and a high degree of empathy.
diagnostics industry undergoes transformation
The past two years brought unprecedented growth for the industry as demand for COVID-19 testing skyrocketed. Before the pandemic, the industry was expected to grow 6.6% annually from 2019 to 2024, according to McKinsey. However, those estimates quickly became outdated as the need for in vitro diagnostics exploded. In particular, demand for molecular diagnostics rose 2,000% between March and October 2020, and many markets could not build enough capacity to perform the critical reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests.
But as the industry sees demand ebb with the decline of COVID-19 testing, it will continue its transformational journey like other parts of the life sciences business. In particular, the consumerization and digitalization of the diagnostics business will fundamentally change how consumers and healthcare providers conduct testing and integrate results with their overall care. Technology will also help address chronic lab shortages and accelerate the processing of samples.
For instance, automation at one South Korea hospital significantly improves worker productivity and reduces time required to achieve results, while cutting costs. Additionally, connected monitoring of blood glucose levels will also improve care and reduce acute care needed for diabetic patients as a result of better disease management. This also enables more personalized care — a trend that has been accelerating in recent years.
Of course all these developments bring the industry on a crash course with other technology companies when it comes to competing for talent. AI, machine learning and automation skills are in high demand as diagnostics manufacturers look to develop more efficient and faster products. Cloud and cybersecurity specialists will be needed to enhance patient privacy and data security as more remote monitoring and online care are delivered.
a growing skills gap threatens progress
Even as each of the major businesses within life sciences contend with unique challenges, the common one they all face is talent scarcity. With it being the top-cited pain point, it’s understandable why many are prioritizing the attraction and retention of skilled professionals. This hiring challenge is especially difficult since 47% of entry-level positions are in high-skill occupations, according to the U.S.-based Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes. In comparison, that figure is only 27% for all industries. What’s more, nearly 2 in 5 jobs posted in the sector are STEM roles.
There is plenty of evidence of the growing skills gap in the life sciences sector. According to McKinsey, 80% of pharma-manufacturing companies report a skills mismatch. Randstad research shows that it takes 105 days on average to fill a non-executive position in the U.S. life sciences sector, resulting in a loss of $500 a day. Between 2020 and 2021, France registered the highest increase in the field in job vacancies at 76%.
One drug discovery company CEO estimates only 150 AI researchers in the world have the exact skills his company needs — an impossibly small talent pool. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 Report predicts that 97 million new roles that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms may emerge by 2025.
Following are four talent acquisition trends that life sciences organizations should use to attract and retain the right people in today’s complex and competitive landscape.
01. use purpose and meaning to stand out.
Attracting top talent to the life sciences sector has become challenging as companies in the field now compete with so many other employers. Fortunately, the sector is well-regarded among the working population and is considered among the top 10 fields in which to work, according to Randstad Employer Brand Research. Employers, however, are not well recognized to the average worker since drugs and medical device brands are not household names. And when it comes to attractiveness, the sector dropped one place, to sixth, in our research.
Because the industry is highly regulated, workplace culture and the work employees do are not often shared, further complicating employer brand and talent attraction. Historically, the sector has trailed others in organizational transparency and employer brand development. Even though the work that life sciences companies perform is more impactful than most other industries, talent has less of a connection with their products and services than a favorite food, a car or apps that are embedded in their daily lives. So when it comes to employer brand recognition, big tech companies have clear advantages over life science businesses.
Employers know this, and they are taking steps to enhance the appeal of the business. Martin Thomas, head of Total Workforce Strategy at health technology company Philips, explains that the company is sharpening its talent strategy to stand out from competitors across all industries.
This means maximizing job flexibility where possible so talent can achieve the best work-life balance, realigning hiring managers’ expectations around how work gets done, and emphasizing the meaning and value of a career in health technology. As one of the leading medical technology manufacturers in the world, Philips articulates that careers with the company ultimately help to improve people’s health and well-being, fulfilling job seekers’ desire for a meaningful career.
Martin tells talent, “For us, you can do meaningful work that connects you to a team whose members are all inspired to improve health, and where you can see that shared purpose, and where you're able to create deeper connections with other people in your team.”
Purpose and meaning have indeed emerged as important considerations for job seekers two years after the start of the global crisis. Randstad’s 2022 Workmonitor global research found that one-third of workers say they would take a paycut if they felt their job contributed toward society, with 42% of the youngest generation (18-24) holding such beliefs.
02. hyper-focus on your talent experience.
Other ways in which organizations are engaging with talent in a memorable and positive way is by creating a better talent experience. In fact, 77% of life sciences and pharma leaders say their organizations are more focused on the talent experience than ever before. The strategies they find most effective are: offering flexible work arrangements, increasing compensation and benefits, focusing on employee well-being, and emphasizing their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Benefits, in particular, have been one way companies are developing a more positive talent experience for their workforce. During the height of the pandemic, companies increased employee surveying, offered greater flexibility, and expanded health and wellness coverage. Concerned with burnout and stress among their people, many companies enhanced their employee assistance programs and set up support hotlines.
Job flexibility was critical early on in the pandemic, but many companies now made permanent changes to company culture and workplace practices. At MilliporeSigma, the U.S. and Canada life science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a global tools and equipment supplier to biopharmaceutial manufacturers, the company had been slowly transitioning to allow greater flexibility around where and when work could be done. When the global economy went into a lockdown in 2020, the company deployed its workforce remotely for jobs that could be performed from home.
Still today, a significant portion of the company’s workforce continues to work a fully remote or hybrid schedule. Retaining this new flexible way of working is key to providing a better talent experience, says Adam Robitaille, head of HR Market, North America.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has really lit a fire to expedite our transition. It became so important to employees to have that flexibility. And honestly, as an organization, we benefit by having more efficient employees. They’re able to work from home, with less of a commute or maybe no commute, and they're able to work hours that also work for the organization,” he says.
Other companies, like Moderna, added benefits such as infertility coverage, access to wellness coaches, popup childcare, a backup daycare program and even food for families at home to enhance their talent experience.
03. power diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
When it comes to DEI efforts, fewer human capital leaders in life sciences are convinced this is an issue that is important to talent. Our survey found just 63% of life sciences and pharma employers believe the DEI practices that are embedded in their organizations are important to candidates — the lowest percentage among all sectors we studied and 16 points lower than the global average across all sectors. What’s more, only 41% say their hiring practices supported their diversity goals in 2021 — again the lowest among all sectors.
At the same time, however, 60% also say workplace DEI are fundamental to attracting, engaging and retaining talent, and 70% believe DEI are embedded in their talent strategies and integral to everything they do.
For many life sciences employers, re-examining their commitment to a diverse, equitable and inclusive work culture may be necessary if they want to attract the best talent. Randstad Workmonitor data shows this is an important issue, with about half (49%) of 18-24 year olds saying they won’t accept a job with an organization not actively improving its DEI progress. In fact, among all age groups, 41% feel the same way.
For some organizations, DEI is more than just about workforce diversity and inclusion; this is an issue that has greater societal impact. For instance, medical device manufacturer Medtronic reported that it has 100% pay equity across genders and 99% across ethnicity in the U.S. The company has long strived to achieve equity in its workforce and continues to assess its pay practices in an ongoing effort to reach total parity for all of its workers around the world.
04. shift ‘build, buy or borrow’ strategies for the digital economy.
Learning and development continue to be an important part of successful talent strategies as companies look to upskill their workforce to adapt with innovation and new ways of working. Internal mobility figures into this effort as companies look to their own people to fill important roles.
This strategy not only helps employers acquire the skills they need, but also shows people how much the organization values them, driving retention. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of life sciences and pharma leaders report that reskilling and upskilling current employees for different roles has been effective in addressing talent shortages. This is likely why 63% say they’ve already invested in internal mobility platforms to enhance recruitment efforts, and 53% say their organization is investing more in this area.
Philips’ Thomas points out that his company aims to have 40% of hires be internal candidates. “This supports the development of our own talent, helps address attrition and improves retention. And these are people who are talented and Philips at the same time,” he emphasizes.
Employers in this sector are also investing in attracting contingent talent to their organizations. Many are using talent analytics and market intelligence to help them make smarter decisions about what types of talent should complete different kinds of work, based on availability, for example. And while life sciences and pharma leaders are investing in talent marketing for permanent talent much less (50%) than other sectors, 57% say they are investing in talent marketing for temporary staff — the highest of all sectors. Seventy-three percent (73%) are investing in talent marketing for freelancers and independent contractors — also the highest of the sectors.
navigate a transformed world of work
With the pandemic now less of a concern in most of the world, life sciences employers will have to adjust to a transformed world of work. The expectations of talent have shifted, business growth continues to drive demand for high-skilled workers, and a changed workplace and culture are ushering a new era of flexibility. The global talent shortage — a chronic concern for organizational leaders — will require long-term investments at many levels before companies can feel at ease about their access to skills.
For now, the sector will need to look inward as well as externally to get the skills needed to drive innovation — the demand and challenge every business in life sciences faces. The best talent strategy will be an optimized combination of buy, build and borrow along with reskilling and internal mobility. And to get the most from the people they have access to, employers will have to create a truly positive talent experience that leans heavily on purpose and meaningful work in a life-changing industry.
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