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Overcoming Pharma’s Talent Scarcity Challenges


Execution of three-pronged approach to combat short-staffed teams can maximize ROI of hiring efforts.

Jim Sykes

Jim Sykes

Over the past year, pharmaceutical companies experienced unprecedented growth and hiring levels as they responded to urgent public safety needs as a result of the pandemic. Today, they’re left crippled by unfilled positions, feeling the strain of short-staffed teams struggling to address shifting business priorities.

Research from AMS shows that 68% of organizations report finding and attracting quality hires as their top challenge. The issue most companies face is believing that talent scarcity is a problem that can be solved. It’s not.

In reality, business leaders must first dive several layers deeper, in order to pinpoint specific challenges, and address them in order of impact with targeted strategies.

What does it take for businesses to uncover the right talent challenges to solve? It starts by analyzing the data they already have, and executing on a three-pronged approach that maximizes the ROI of their effort and investments.

The big picture of talent scarcity in the pharma industry

Scarce talent can be attributed to several different factors. It can be due to a limited number of people with a specific niche skill set or certification, or it can be the result of when market demand exceeds supply in a particular field of work. Talent scarcity can also differ greatly by industry, geography or experience level.

For example, candidates with experience with master data, drug comparator, temperature control management, and anything related to cell therapy or CAR-T are hard to come by. At the geographic level, the availability of pharmaceutical talent in the Bothell, Wash., area has been scarce lately. According to the Life Science Washington Economic Impact Report, Washington state is home to close to 900 life science companies, more than 60 of which are located in Bothell.

Recently, AMS analyzed data from over 30,000 pharma/life sciences permanent hires globally to understand which roles should be considered the scarcest and the most challenging to hire for. The methodology, which companies can replicate using their own data, helped the company better understand trends and challenges across the sector and for individual clients.

According to the research, pharma companies are leaning heavily on recruitment agencies to hire sales and marketing talent, and even still, are experiencing higher than average time-to-hire. Research and development talent is taking even longer to hire, though given the niche skill sets needed this isn’t a shock. That said, companies aren’t turning to recruitment agencies to help them source them - they’re keeping the search in house. One more interesting finding is that US pharma companies don’t seem to have a scarcity issue with talent in medical affairs, unlike pharmas in many other countries who are experiencing it.

Zooming in and targeting high-impact talent strategies

Addressing the issue of scarce talent requires companies to understand exactly which positions are most impacted - and to what extent. A data-driven approach helps to, first, validate assumptions about talent challenges and, second, ensure that companies are investing wisely in their talent acquisition processes. Too often hiring managers overstate challenges or HR leaders assume a particular issue extends broadly across their role functions or markets. Using data can determine which issues are isolated or widespread, and then rightsize the solution.

Today’s top strategies for addressing talent scarcity fall into three categories.

Market insights

Hiring efforts fueled by data can get the right talent in the door faster. By examining external data, companies can determine where they are most likely to find the talent they need, and determine if it’s possible to hire remote employees or move the position to a market where talent is more abundant. It’s important to understand the compensation expectations for each role and market by gaining access to pharma industry metrics.

Internally, there’s a lot to be learned from examining a company’s own data. One example of this is analyzing whether particular roles have been historically filled by internal or external candidates. Companies could save time in the hiring process by promoting certain open roles internally vs. sourcing candidates in a scarce market. In general, workforce analytics can offer valuable insight into time-to-fill, cost of hires, training efficiencies, turnover of internally and externally sourced candidates, duration of employment, reasons for leaving, the cost of replacing these employees, and more.

Candidate sourcing capabilities

Technology can help make the sourcing process incredibly efficient - and effective. There are many different AI-driven sourcing tools out there on the market. Some pharma organizations are looking at technologies to drive more effective sourcing, rank applicants based on qualifications met, and further internal talent mobility. Some of the benefits that organizations are seeing from this are time savings for recruiters/sourcers, increased productivity, increased quality of hires, and better utilization of existing talent pools.

A non-technology strategy that gives pharmas more sourcing capabilities is to upskill recruiters to act as talent advisors. Recruiters have a significant amount of on-the-street experience working with candidates across all job functions. They should have a collaborative relationship with hiring managers to help them determine the right strategy for each position. Simply handing off a job description to a recruiter without soliciting their advice on how to be successful is a dated view of the recruiting function.

Candidate centricity

In markets where talent is scarce, it’s important that companies have a sound strategy to target passive candidates. When working with an active candidate, half of the sale has already been completed because they applied for a role. With a passive candidate, the sale starts from scratch, and the opportunity must be presented like a “golden ticket.” Pharmas need to make clear that candidates will be supporting the creation of life-altering forms of medication and therapies. Once interested, the process must be simple, straightforward, and timely.

A critical component of the process is communication. From a basic talent management standpoint, monitoring an applicant tracking system (ATS) is critical in providing timely candidate response, and sending the correct client branding message to the candidate. Word travels quickly when a candidate has a bad experience, and in a scarce environment companies can’t afford to lose out on talent for preventable reasons.

The talent scarcity issue in the pharmaceutical industry can’t be addressed overnight. Hiring needs to be on the executive radar and deemed a strategic business objective in order to compete for the talent organizations need to compete.

Jim Sykes, Sector Managing Director, Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences and Professional Services at AMS (formerly Alexander Mann Solutions)

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