COVID and the Data Talent Turnabout

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 11

Traditionally difficult in pharma, data science recruitment witnessed a sharp drop-off at the beginning of the pandemic, but interest has since bounced back to unexpected levels.

The market for data scientists has long been highly competitive, and it is one in which pharma has sometimes struggled to attract the best talent. The industry’s reputational troubles, for one thing, meant that “there was always a certain percentage of the tech or digital candidate pool that just wouldn’t even consider pharma,” says Damien Deighan, CEO of UK-headquartered recruitment firm Data Science Talent. When COVID-19 first raged around the world in early 2020, things became more challenging, especially in Europe. COVID’s impact on the data science recruitment space was “initially extremely negative,” says Deighan. He explains, “Recruitment that was already in process saw a delay because no one knew how long the lockdowns were going to last. In the UK, for example, the lockdowns kept getting extended. Our permanent recruitment numbers dropped off a cliff in every industry. Pharma didn’t escape this.” Deighan says the number of advertised data science jobs dropped around 60%–70% in the first lockdown period. In pharma, he observes, there was a general hiring freeze. While companies that were invested or involved in vaccine production began to focus all their efforts on COVID vaccines rather than hiring, other pharma companies remained too cautious to proceed with their hiring strategies.

Reputational boost

The situation in the US was a little better—then-President Trump was not as keen as the European leaders on immediate lockdown restrictions—while recruitment in Europe remained “really dreadful” for the rest of 2020. But then Deighan saw a turnaround. “When we came back to work in January 2021, we were expecting it still to be painful. But, certainly from February onward, things just went through the roof. The industry was suddenly ‘cool’ to work in. It became easier for pharma to attract data science candidates. It was remarkable.” A major reason for this shift, of course, was pharma’s reputational uplift on the back of the expedited COVID vaccine and treatment programs. In the US, Otsuka’s chief data and analytics officer, Tifani McCann, observed the same thing. “With COVID, we began to hear about data scientists on the national news, even the global news,” she tells Pharm Exec. “That was probably the first time I’ve heard data scientists discussed on the news. And I thought, maybe this will help inspire candidates to understand what they can do with their quantitative skill sets and draw more people into this field.”

Pharma’s change of recruitment fortunes also rests on the wider impact of the vaccine programs and the evolution of working practices during COVID. If the COVID vaccines hadn’t been developed quickly, it could have spelled disaster for the economy for a very long time, says Deighan. Candidates have not only seen the value that pharma is bringing in the fight against COVID but also the importance from a broader health-economic standpoint. The vaccines have also made it possible for people to return to their offices. “Multiple vaccines have brought a level of safety and certainty,” says Deighan. “Companies started saying, ‘Okay, this is not over, but we have it under control. We know what we’re dealing with. Let’s get back to work.’ Everyone had got used to the working at home, and companies had trialed the remote onboarding of new employees. And they decided these things weren’t bad at all.”

McCann says that remote onboarding and working has led companies to realize that they can “find talent in places they wouldn’t have looked before.” Candidates are no longer restricted by location or by rigid working practices. Pharma companies have “definitely made a change in allowing flexible working,” adds Deighan. “We didn’t really see that at all prior to the pandemic.”

Deighan believes that the turnaround in data science recruitment will hold “for the next few years at least.” Another effect of COVID is that the industry has “fast-forwarded its plans to digitalize the business.” Of course, “sitting in the middle of that digital effort are data science and AI.” Deighan concludes that pharma’s decision to “double down on going digital” means the industry could double or triple its efforts to hire in this area over the next three to five years.

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at