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Recruitment Headaches in Pharma? There’s No Pill for That.

Recruitment Headaches in Pharma? There’s No Pill for That.

Recruitment for pharma is uniquely challenging. Carly-Anne Fairlie of IQ Partners and Darren Kruszynski of Grapevine Executive Recruiters share their insights on why that is.

Pharma recruitment in North America is big business. More than 800,000 people work in US biopharmaceuticals and LinkedIn lists 61,000 job vacancies in US pharmaceutical companies — a back-of-the-envelope vacancy rate of eight percent. In Canada, numbers for the pharma workforce are elusive, but LinkedIn lists almost 2,700 pharma job opportunities, for a country one-tenth the size of the US.

So, why is the vacancy rate in pharma relatively high? One reason could be that pharma recruitment is uniquely challenging, say recruiters. Pharma companies reportedly want science-type people that will thrive in corporate life yet have a feel for patient-centred medicine. This combination is certainly unique to pharma and very tough to find, according to recruitment consultants.

“When you’re working in pharmaceuticals, it’s a very corporate type of environment but the end goal of a pharmaceutical company is to improve quality of life for the patients,” said Carly-Anne Fairlie, VP of Client Services at IQ PARTNERS in Toronto. “So, you do need that strong academic background but you also need a customer-oriented, empathetic personality where they can understand that patient-centric approach.”

Carly-Anne Fairlie, pharma recruiter. Image credit: Helen Leask/Xtalks.com
Carly-Anne Fairlie, pharma recruiter. Image credit: Helen Leask/Xtalks.com

Darren Kruszynski, founder of Grapevine Executive Recruiters in Toronto, echoed Carly-Anne’s comments. “People working in pharma tend to stay in pharma. They like the high science aspect, the patient-centric aspect. They enjoy the type of industry that it is.”

The demand for such pharma-ready candidates often outstrips supply.

In Canada this year, said Carly-Anne, the strong economy has also made her job harder. “Candidates have a lot more opportunity and choice in the type of role, which kind of company, as well as salary. We’re in a market where there are more opportunities than there are qualified candidates to fill them.”

Candidates from Other Industries Rarely Make the Grade

A related challenge, said Darren, is that candidates from other industries rarely make the grade.

He said, “It’s difficult to go from Coca-Cola or packaged goods into pharma because of the regulations. It’s a highly regulated industry, high science. [Companies] generally look for people that can be effective day one, versus bringing someone in from another industry and waiting two to three months before that person gets ramped up.”

The exception is a communications or government-relations role. Darren said that a client might be willing to look at a resumé of a candidate from another regulated environment such as oil and gas for these functions. “[These candidates] generally have an understanding of what it takes to operate within pharma,” he said.

Carly-Anne has a professional background in communications and talent management and her expertise spans both in-house and external creative agencies. She agrees that some industry cross-over is possible in communications, especially if the candidate is confident in the online environment.

Historically, pharma has kept a low profile on social media because of regulatory restrictions that change from country to country, so a candidate with a good handle on digital strategy will shine. “More and more pharmaceutical companies are having people monitoring and managing channels,” Carly-Anne said. “And not just social-media specialists, but people who will be in a position to deal with any kind of crisis that may come up online, from a consumer’s comment to responding to emerging news.”

Increasingly Specialized Medical Markets

Darren has witnessed a huge shift in the personnel needs of pharmaceutical companies since he started his recruiting business 20 years ago. Back then, medicines for common conditions, such as anti-hypertensives, statins and hormone-replacement therapies, were top sellers. Armies of sales reps were needed to visit family doctors, who were the main prescribers of these types of drugs. “Primary care was generally what was making money back then, so a lot of recruitment was needed,” Darren said.

Darren Kruszynski, founder of Grapevine Executive Recruiters. Image credit: Helen Leask/Xtalks.com
Darren Kruszynski, founder of Grapevine Executive Recruiters. Image credit: Helen Leask/Xtalks.com

Top-selling drugs have now shifted from primary-care medicines to expensive, specialized medicines for cancer, autoimmune diseases, viral infections and multiple sclerosis.  This has resulted in a ‘specialized-medicine’ model that involves fewer physicians, fewer patients and fewer sales reps. Said Darren, “Where you used to have a company like GSK or Astra [Zeneca] who might have 40, 50 or 100 reps in the greater-Toronto area, a lot of companies working in specialized medicine might now have three — or two.”

The challenges go way beyond a lack of highly specialized staff.

The Coca-Cola Company doesn’t need to do a clinical trial to claim that its product ‘Adds Life.’ By contrast, pharma does need to do clinical trials — and clinical trials need doctors. After the drug is approved, these same expert doctors train other physicians at educational events and conferences. The pharma-physician relationship, under an increasingly bright spotlight from governments worldwide, has no parallel in any other industry.

In today’s high-science, specialized-medicine reality, pharmaceutical companies need help from expert doctors like never before. Thus, job candidates that have already worked with top physicians are even more valuable. “That’s the thing on the client’s wish list [for a candidate] that really differentiates pharma — those thought-leader relationships,” said Darren.

Cross-Functional Candidates

Over the years, pharma companies have also become more streamlined with fewer layers. Today’s skinny pharma companies require staff to have more than one role — and a skillset to match. No longer can someone with a PhD or MD hunker down in a cube in medical affairs. “When you have a smaller [pharma] organization it’s much harder to hide,” said Darren. “When that cross-functional work needs to done across sales, marketing, science, government relations, that really takes an understanding of what the personality is of the company, the business philosophy.”

Carly-Anne agrees. Although pharma candidates need to be “very well-educated”, having a postgraduate degree is not enough, she said. “Strong communication skills and the ability to communicate to all levels, from someone fresh out of school to your stakeholders or your CEO — having that ability to adapt your style to the person or group that you’re speaking to, is really a skill that is incredibly important nowadays.”