UK Life Sciences Recruitment: Optimism Reigns Despite Economic Uncertainty

November 18, 2019

As we go into 2020, we are faced with an uncertain economic climate, which is impacting hiring intentions, salaries and morale. Despite this, the UK has a robust life sciences market, thanks to well-established scientific centers of excellence and a highly skilled workforce. The country has seen continued, strong investment over the last few months, particularly within advanced therapies and SME biotechnology firms. With this in mind, how are employers of life sciences professionals approaching the next 12 months? And what is the sentiment among employees?

Life sciences employers more optimistic about economic climate

There is no doubt that the economic outlook across the UK has tempered due to ongoing uncertainty. Only around a third (36%) of employers across sectors say they are optimistic about the wider economy and the employment opportunities it may create within the next 2-5 years, and employees reflect this sentiment. 

However, findings from the Hays Salary & Recruiting Trends 2020 guide suggest that employers in the life sciences sector are slightly more optimistic, as closer to half (45%) say they feel positive about the economy and longer-term opportunities. The vast majority (95%) also expect their organization’s activity levels to increase or stay the same over the next 12 months.

Hiring plans continue

Hiring new staff is also on the agenda for employers in life sciences, as over three quarters (79%) say they plan to hire staff in the coming year compared to just 68% in the UK overall. Most are looking to hire permanent staff (68%) in the year ahead, which is encouraging for life sciences employees who are looking for new opportunities this year. 

Recruiting temporary and contract staff is still the plan for over a third (35%) of life sciences employers this year despite IR35 legislation reforms looming over medium to large private sector organizations. Although this adds to the picture of uncertainty, employers in the sector still require support from temporary and contract workers predominately to meet peaks in demand and access skills for one-off projects (according to 59% and 42% of employers respectively).  

Skills shortages persist

Despite the access in the UK to top talent and skills in pharmaceuticals, skills shortages continue as they have for industries across the UK. 94% of employers say they have experienced shortages in the past year, higher than the UK average of 88% and also those who experienced shortages last year (84%). Employers say the main causes of this are competition for roles and fewer people entering their industry.

The key skills needed by life sciences employers include managerial and leadership (36%) and data and analytics (29%), demonstrating a shift away from technical skills which was the focus last year. Although having the right technical skills will always be important, soft skills are more and more in demand to add human value to our increasingly digitalized workplace. The soft skills employers are most looking for are communication and interpersonal skills (66%) and flexibility and adaptability (57%).

To overcome the challenge of skills shortages, employers will want to focus on establishing a pipeline of talent for the future. Currently less than a fifth (19%) have increased their training budget to address shortages, but more employers should be looking to offer formal training programmes as well as internships, graduate schemes and apprenticeships to develop future talent.  

Salaries and pay transparency on the rise

Salary remains a key driver for employee mobility among life science employees. Nearly a quarter (22%) of those who moved job in the last 12 months did so because their salary was too low, and 28% who plan to move this year cite the same reason. Salaries did however rise 2% for roles in life sciences last year, which is higher than the UK average of 1.8%. 

Alongside salary itself, transparency around pay is becoming more important to employees. More employees say they are becoming aware of pay gaps at their organization in terms of gender and ethnicity, so increased clarity around salaries should be on the agenda for employers in the coming year. Pay transparency might come in the form of clear promotion and pay structures, publishing pay levels and undertaking regular pay reviews. 

It should be noted that employers in life sciences have made efforts to be open about salaries, which is much needed in light of the 81% of professionals who say that pay transparency is important to them. 63% of employers agree that their organisation is consistently transparent about how pay rises are set, which is above the UK average (59%) and a marked improvement from last year (54%). 

Flexible working options crucial to talent attraction and development

Salary is undeniably a top priority for life sciences employees, but addressing pay alone may not be enough for employers to hold on to talent. An appealing benefits package which facilitates a healthy work-life balance is also important to employees and can be a strong selling point for a company in today’s competitive hiring landscape. 

Over a third (34%) say that a work-life balance is the most important factor aside from salary when considering a new role, and 36% are looking to change their working hours (including flexible working) to improve their work-life balance.

Our findings indicate a significant gap between employee and employer expectations when it comes to work-life balance, as currently less than a quarter (23%) of life sciences employers believe promoting a work-life balance is the most important factor aside from salary to help them attract staff. Promoting a variety of flexible working options presents another focus area for employers in the upcoming year, both in job adverts to potential employees and communications to current staff.

The findings in our salary guide certainly reveal a number of areas life sciences employers can focus on in the upcoming year, most notably investing in training, establishing a pipeline for future talent, increasing pay transparency and promoting flexible working. However, the relative optimism felt by employers and employees in the sector is important to bear in mind and is encouraging as we go into the next 12 months.

About the research

The salary data has been compiled using information gathered during 2019 from Hays offices across the UK. It is based on job listings, job offers and candidate registrations. The recruiting trends and benefits data is based on a survey conducted in June and July 2019. The survey was completed by over 31,500 employees and employers, 504 of whom were professionals working in life sciences.

Chris Smith is Director of Hays Life Sciences.