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Three Ways to Close the Urgent Talent Gap


The industry has struggled to recruit talent for years, and the challenge is only getting more difficult. Pharma companies need to recruit differently.

Michelle Sims, CEO, YUPRO Placement

Michelle Sims, CEO, YUPRO Placement

The pharmaceutical and life sciences industry is facing a 35% talent deficit by 2030. With the sector expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.75% through 20281, the shortening of product cycles, pharmaceutical use on the rise, and an aging working population, companies are fighting to find the talent they need.

The industry has struggled to recruit talent for years, and the challenge is only getting more difficult. Pharma companies need to recruit differently.

Understanding the problem

Filling a non-executive role in life sciences typically takes two to three months. This unwelcome statistic is due to a number of reasons:

  • Supply shortage: There's a significant gap between the demand for skilled professionals and the available talent, especially in roles needing a blend of scientific and technical skills.
  • Outdated recruitment strategies: Traditional recruitment methods often limit the talent pool by focusing too narrowly on candidates with industry-specific experience.
  • Complex hiring process: There are extra precautions when hiring in this industry due to the need for specific qualifications and regulatory knowledge.
  • High competition: The industry faces fierce competition for talent, not just from within but from tech companies as well, making it tough to attract and retain the best candidates. This competition also drives up salaries making it harder to fill a job in the time desired.

Desperate for key skills

A recent Deloitte survey2 revealed that 83% of pharmaceutical and life sciences companies have difficulty finding skilled talent, with 75% anticipating the shortage to worsen over the next five years. 

The skills needed are changing, too. Digital transformation is reshaping the industry’s top skills in demand. Companies need professionals adept in cutting-edge technologies like AI, machine learning, and data analytics, from biotechnology to pharmaceuticals.

Because the traditional roles of life sciences are evolving, so are their corresponding skill sets. For example, clinical research positions have changed in a number of ways: most of these roles can now be performed remotely instead of jumping from site to site, there’s much more critical thinking and less paperwork, and candidates need to utilize digital research skills and be well versed in specific software. This has added to the industry’s recruitment challenges.

The jobs in greatest demand consist of both clinical and non-clinical roles, with the highest shortage in tech talent in this industry. Pharma companies increasingly need professionals with data science, digital transformation, AI, and cybersecurity skills.

We see the most urgent need for data scientists and analysts, bioinformatics specialists, regulatory affairs specialists, clinical research coordinators and managers, digital transformation leads, AI and machine learning engineers, cybersecurity analysts, and project managers.

Three ways to win at pharma + life sciences recruiting

With the overwhelming talent gap hindering the industry and a solid handle on what roles need to be most urgently filled, companies have no choice but to move outside their comfort zone to recruit effectively.

Here are three recruiting strategies to close the talent gap:

1. Embrace a skills-based hiring approach.

The industry has traditionally recruited out of colleges and sought out talent with degrees in biology or life sciences, but the numbers show there simply aren’t enough college graduates with these specific degrees to fill the available openings. Focusing on skills-based hiring prioritizes skills and competencies over a four-year degree. It also helps foster a more diverse, innovative, and resilient workforce.

To begin incorporating this approach, company leadership - including the C-suite, HR, and hiring managers - should collaborate in setting the skills-based hiring strategy. Assess what non-clinical roles are most urgent to fill and start there. Rewrite job descriptions, eliminating degree and industry-specific experience requirements. Replace that language with the top skills needed for each job.

For durable “soft” skill assessment, use behavioral interviewing techniques asking candidates to provide specific examples of displaying said skills, while incorporating interview role playing and project simulations to assess candidates’ skills. Technical skills assessments that are not industry specific are helpful, and incorporate interview rubrics with consistent scoring mechanisms to reduce bias.

Once hired, the onboarding and training plan for new employees is key to hiring and retention. Whether it’s through a formal program or mentors to guide the way, a commitment to on-the-job learning is critical to ensuring a lasting fit.

One of our pharmaceutical clients has a growing need for early career talent in animal testing facilities in rural markets. There isn’t enough talent in these areas to support the demand, so the company is partnering with community colleges on a training curriculum that upon completion, results in interviews. This program is customized exactly for what the client needs. It’s being used not just to fill immediate talent needs, but also to build an ongoing pipeline of talent.

2. Hire from outside the industry.

Many pharma and life sciences companies are stuck in the mentality that viable candidates must have previous life sciences experience. Yes, there are some roles where pharma-specific experience is necessary. Many of the talent gaps, however, are in roles that can either be trained or are non-clinical.

Historically, pharma has been hesitant to hire from outside its industry for a number of reasons. The industry’s heavy regulation demands deep compliance knowledge, which can pose a challenge for outsiders. Many roles need specific scientific and technical expertise that isn’t easily transferable from other industries.

There’s an answer to break the cycle of only recruiting from within: this knowledge can be learned. Because of this, recruiters and hiring managers can look beyond industry experience and seek out transferable skills, particularly those in administration and operations. These include data analysis, project management, and digital technology.

HR and hiring managers can verify the candidates have these transferable skill sets with skills assessments. Gauge candidates’ ability to learn quickly and adapt to new environments by assessing whether they are able to pivot easily and think on their feet. Look for strong analytical and problem-solving skills essential for navigating the pharma industry's complexities. Because pharma projects oftentimes require collaboration, look for their experience in cross-functional and collaborative roles, and in other verticals such as tech, hospital administration, government, and the military.

3. Utilize apprenticeships.

Professional apprenticeships provide a structured pathway for developing skilled professionals tailored to the needs of the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.

Access non-traditional sources of talent for apprentices and focus on in-demand skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, project management, organization, and adaptability. Additional important characteristics for apprentices are attention to detail, accuracy, teamwork, and collaboration. Partner with an apprenticeship intermediary or nonprofit workforce development organization to build customized on-the-job training programs for apprentices. While the pharma organization supports the technical skills specific to their company, there is an entire ecosystem of workforce organizations that can create learning paths for apprentices.

In addition to gaining the skills needed in their core functions, training programs can be tailored to include the latest technological advancements, digital tools, and competencies.

Apprenticeships see a return on investment of $1.44 on the dollar, according to the Urban Institute.3 They typically involve initial lower salaries than fully-qualified hires and can be supported by government incentives, making it a cost-effective way for organizations to secure and keep the talent they need.

Through apprenticeship programs, pharmaceutical and life sciences companies are developing a talent pipeline with the exact blend of skills needed to excel in their roles at the company and build a career in the industry.

Thinking bigger means bigger returns

The talent crisis in pharma and life sciences is real; it’s stunting growth and stifling innovation. It’s time for the sector’s leaders to get creative and tap into the extensive workforce development ecosystem available to them.

Implementing these non-traditional recruiting methods, along with incorporating more skills-based approaches to talent acquisition, is a strategic move toward fostering a diverse and productive workforce. These strategies will not only meet immediate talent needs, but build the talent pipeline for the future, too. Only with talent demands met will companies be able to innovate and compete in this market well into our future.

Michelle Sims, CEO, YUPRO Placement


  1. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-sciences-market-size-reach-us-13746205-kfl7e/
  2. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/it/Documents/life-sciences-health-care/deloitte-life-sciences-outlook-2023.pdf
  3. https://www.urban.org/projects/building-americas-workforce/bodies-work/apprenticeship
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