Money Isn't Everything: Beating Salary Inflation

February 4, 2020

Alan White explores alternative ways for life sciences firms to keep hold of experienced, qualified professionals as demand for pharmacovigilance skills soars.

Alan White explores alternative ways for life sciences firms to keep hold of experienced, qualified professionals as demand for pharmacovigilance skills soars.

Attracting and keeping qualified safety and regulatory professionals has become a global challenge, as younger professionals’ ambitions for a broad base of experience conflict with firms’ needs to hang onto the expertise they have invested in. It’s become a hot topic of conversation at industry events, with most life sciences organisations now affected in some way. Biotech companies are especially vulnerable, unable to match the salaries and ‘on-paper’ benefits of the global pharma giants. Too often they equip new graduates with a firm foundation in pharmacovigilance (PV), only for a larger brand to woo them with a more senior version of their role and a 20 per cent uplift in salary. 

It’s a competition that’s hard to win with a limited budget. So smarter strategies are needed, and a good place to start is with employees’ changing career priorities. As well as being hungry for a greater range of work experience, for example, newer graduates are reputedly less influenced by salary than previous generations. Freedom to explore, create, innovate and experiment at work are often among their personal priorities, according to a wealth of recruitment studies, along with the ability to protect their work-life balance, through more flexibility over their location and hours.

There is an opportunity here, then, for employers to think differently about how they appeal to younger demographics and keep them interested. This plays to the strengths of biotech firms, which may not be able to match the eye-watering salaries offered by higher-profile brands – but are more agile and dynamic in structure and culture, and better able to offer more flexible terms, as well as the chance to shadow and try out different roles. (Large monolithic corporate entities are much less well equipped to bend to the evolving demands of the workforce. They may be able to pay people well, but they are less adept at preventing career fatigue and role-related boredom. Indeed, research by Gallup[i] suggests that the high/rapid turnover of younger employees costs the US economy $30.5 billion annually.)

Building PV capabilities against the odds

Although filling regulatory roles is a generic challenge across life sciences, the situation is magnified in pharmacovigilance where the responsibilities are more involved. PV is a moving target, for instance: new safety risks are emerging all the time; as are new means of locating and identifying them. PV positions also require applied experience: the ability to understand whether a safety signal is significant or not, amid all the real-world market feedback. The people who can do this well – with or without the help of advanced technology – are few and far between. (Good senior regulatory people, by contrast, are relatively easy to find.)

All of this means that firms need to think laterally about how they build and maintain their PV capabilities. It’s something we have had to do ourselves: Arriello has been directly affected by large CROs or pharmaceutical companies poaching people we have invested in training and developing. Often we’ve been left with just an individual’s eight-week notice period to replace not just their skillsets, but also their understanding of our processes, our systems, our culture and so on. 

High-turnover scenarios like this this benefit no one. Ensnared by the promise of a higher status and salary, the professionals concerned haven’t always found their expectations met at their new employer. More often, they find their wings clipped and their roles restricted to within narrow parameters. Meanwhile, their new status belies their actual experience, so that they may feel out of their depth and ill-prepared for their additional responsibilities. Meanwhile the mismatch between demand and supply is artificially inflating salaries and making good people prohibitively expensive in the wider market. At the same time, quality standards are potentially compromised as junior PV professionals are assigned a level of seniority they are not equipped for.

To prevent this situation perpetuating itself indefinitely, firms need to review what motivates new graduates and younger recruits other than money. In our case, we had to draw a line and acknowledge that trying to match 20-50 per cent salary hikes that larger industry players are offering is unsustainable. Rather, we focus on providing a culture that people want to be part of. This includes the option to work from home, something a larger corporate culture might not allow.

Balancing the demographics across a department or team is important too – so, if millennials are prone to getting itchy feet within 1-2 years, there are already-experienced, senior PV staff to cover any gaps. Combining people at different stages of their career also offers younger professionals the chance to shadow mentors, in neighbouring disciplines too, to broaden their experience and take advantage of a more holistic opportunity to grow. So if someone comes out of university with a Pharmacy degree without being quite sure of the career route they want to take, they have an opportunity to feel their way into different areas before committing to specialisation. 

Making individuals feel heard – and valued

Offering employees a voice and the chance to make a difference, along with access to the latest tools and techniques, can have a positive impact on the way professionals feel about their work, too. Smaller firms – biotech, or service providers  – have an advantage here too, being much better positioned to foster an entrepreneurial environment: one that encourages innovation, in a structured and inclusive way. 

Interestingly, it isn’t just younger members of the team that appreciate the chance to contribute more proactively to the way things are done. Those in the middle or later stages of their careers, who might otherwise find themselves in a rut, may relish the chance to broaden their horizons, push boundaries and try something new, so that they keep evolving and expanding their own skills and experience. At Arriello, we have a pot of cash set aside for process improvements and technology-enabled transformation, inspired by ideas from front-line team members. Being able to suggest and see through ideas gives people a sense of buy-in and control over their working experience. From the automation of international medical literature screening, to speech-enabled case reporting, we have taken many of these proposals and run with them, which has been very rewarding for those responsible.

It is through this kind of lateral thinking that organizations, especially those with more modest resources, will succeed in overcoming skill shortfalls. Alternatively, they could approach their trusted service partners about how they might help fill any vacancies and/or enable valued employees to expand their field of experience via access to a diverse range of roles and remits. 

Above all, firms should not be complacent, as PV demands grow and the available talent pool risks running dry.

 

Alan White is CEO of Arriello, a specialist global provider of innovative, high-impact market access, regulatory affairs & pharmacovigilance solutions and services for pharma and biotech firms primarily in Europe and North America.

[i] Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation, Gallup