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Sustaining Pace With Contingent Workers


Pandemic workforce trends continue to create challenges for pharma.

Autumn Vaupel

Autumn Vaupel

The accelerated pace of digitization, global crises in the supply chain, and an uncertain labor market have forced pharmaceutical companies to recalibrate many of their operations to keep up with the high rate of business change. Among the answers to these market challenges is rethinking the workforce. The new flexible worker, hybrid worker, and career jumper have all caused companies to completely upend their workforce strategies.

This mass disruption within the labor market has led pharma companies to explore novel and creative talent strategies. To navigate our new world of work, many of these companies have turned to external talent.

Tapping into the benefits of external talent

The external workforce includes contingent workers, consultants, and others supplied by staffing firms. While many pharma companies have used external workers for decades, it has often been as a means to save on labor costs vs. to strategically address specific business needs.

What are pharma’s newest needs that external workers can solve?

The first is to address the quickly growing skills gap. According to McKinsey, more than 80% of pharma-manufacturing companies report having a skills mismatch between what they have and what they need. The firm lists the biggest disruptors as new product modalities, digitization, and advanced analytics.

Demand for digital talent outpaces supply by as much as four to one. While changes in operating models require more digital skills, the odds of pharma companies being able to lure this full-time talent away from huge technology brands are slim.

One way to combat this challenge is to tap into digital consultants and contingent workers as a pipeline for full-time employees. This allows both employers and workers to get to know each other before committing to a permanent relationship. And, for short-term skill needs, this allows companies to access the right talent temporarily without disrupting the pace and efficiency of operations.

The second need is to increase workforce agility. Speed to market is incredibly important, especially given the heroics achieved during the pandemic, and thus, new expectations set.

Some of the trends driving the need for increased speed include evolving government regulations, the excitement and potential of mRNA vaccines, specialist drugs coming to market more quickly, and more agile ways of working, including remote or hybrid clinical trials.

This pace requires the ability to easily pivot and adapt to new opportunities quickly. External workers can both lead the charge as well as fill the gaps within existing teams. They also can help to stabilize operations during times of high turnover, like what we’ve recently experienced with the Great Resignation.

Pharma’s hidden strength in attracting talent

While the talent market is difficult right now, to say the least, pharma companies have an unlikely advantage over those in other industries: brand reputation. Pharma just experienced a massive shift in terms of public sentiment.

Pre-pandemic, a Gallup poll ranked pharma last in industry reputation, recording its lowest score since the poll began in 2001. Fast forward, and a recent Harris poll found that positive sentiment nearly doubled from 32% in January 2020 to 62% in February 2021.

The reason for the lift? The entire industry is benefiting from a halo effect created by Big Pharma’s record-breaking vaccine development in response to COVID-19.

This will serve the industry well in attracting talent. To maintain this reputation momentum, pharma companies have no choice but to sustain pandemic levels of innovation and operational speed. The external workforce will allow them to access the talent they need, when they need it, without creating delays that could set them back.

Moving forward with total workforce visibility and alignment

The external workforce can be a powerful asset in this new era of work. However, pharma companies need to ensure they have the right processes and tools in place to effectively leverage this workforce.

Collaboration between Human Resources (HR) and Procurement is imperative. For many pharma companies, employees and contingent workers are managed in silos by these two separate business functions. In reality, their workforce strategies and goals should be aligned. Some skill gaps or resource needs are better suited for HR to tackle with new hires or employee mobility programs, for example, while others might be best addressed by bringing in external talent. A strong partnership between the two can ensure that challenges are solved quickly by employing a holistic talent strategy.

Aside from strategic alignment, there’s an important tactical aspect of this collaboration, too: technology-driven visibility. Simply put, you can’t measure what you can’t see.

Formalizing the management of the external workforce through a technology solution gives Procurement a way to understand who is on temporary assignments across the organization. By integrating this tool with other HR solutions, pharma companies can effectively recognize skill gaps across their workforces as well as shift workers quickly when the needs of the business change.

Play the long game

The urgent need for talent in the pharma industry isn’t waning anytime soon. The growth of the biologics space, new therapeutic modalities, and cancer treatment innovations only scratch the surface of the many pressing demands facing the industry today. Compounded with the urgency of digitization, complexity of the supply chain, and heightened speed to market, pharma companies must incorporate external talent into their long-term business strategies in order to be successful. Those that create a workforce of all classifications of talent will find themselves nimble and well-equipped to deliver on the many demands placed on them.

Autumn Vaupel is chief operating officer for Beeline

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