Building a team of suitably qualified clinical research professionals within the Asia Pacific region, particularly in China, South Korea, Taiwan and India, has become a critical requirement due to the enormous growth in clinical trial activity in the region.
While there is variance from country to country in both the extent and type of resource shortage within Asia Pacific, it is generally accepted that there is a significant lack of qualified and experienced, English speaking, Clinical Research Associates (CRA's), Project Managers (PM's), Data Managers, Statisticians, Regulatory Affairs personnel and Clinical Pharmacologists across the region. Within China and India, in particular, there is also a lack of study nurses/coordinators.
This shortage has led to an abnormally rapid career growth, salary escalation and acute turnover of staff. It is common for CRA’s to be offered a senior or PM role within 2 - 3 years of recruitment and Clinical Trial Assistants (CTA’s) to move into a CRA role within 6 months. These trends present a challenge for managers to ensure individuals have the depth of knowledge and skills necessary for higher level responsibilities.
That said, while there is a scarcity of experienced, qualified clinical research professionals, the good news is that there is an abundance of highly educated science and medical graduates who, with practical training, have the potential to bring new energy and ideas to the industry, and increase its attractiveness to future graduates. The resourcing problems that currently exist are, therefore, not insurmountable with the appropriate investment and a positive approach. This article reviews the challenges and outlines the various options available to pharmaceutical organisations and CROs and how they can be implemented.
As in any other region, pharmaceutical organisations can decide to either build their own in-house teams or utilise strategic partners, such as CRO’s, by either insourcing (contracting staff) or outsourcing trial operations.
Building an In-house Team
Workforce planning, role risk review, sourcing the right skills, attraction strategies and retention management are some of the critical requirements for building an in-house team.Companies within Asia Pacific tend to utilise the return of ‘expats’ or overseas skilled workers for long or short term assignments to fill a skills’ gap while they train up staff locally. Countries such as China and India are also experiencing a growth in the return of Western educated citizens, attracted by new opportunities in their home countries. The challenge facing many companies is to recognise that maintaining and attracting good quality candidates requires substantial investment and resource allocation in what may, at first glance, be considered a non-productive area of the business. Retention strategies must include a proactive evaluation of promotion expectations and career development, and substantial training, not only at ‘entry level’ but ongoing training initiatives are also important. Frequent exposure to new events and experiences will also help maximise the retention of high quality candidates.
Some Asia Pacific countries have little experience in the use of contract staff compared to their Western counterparts and some of their Asian neighbours including Japan, Australia and New Zealand. As global companies continue to make headcount rationalisations, a continued increase of insourcing within Asia Pacific should be expected, which will be largely achieved through partnering with external vendors.
Historically, companies have focused on insourcing one or two contractors to fill an urgent need. A more valuable approach to consider is the implementation of strategic partnering of insourced teams or entire functions. The movement towards strategic insourcing pushes the focus for the Pharma/Biotech company on product development and the resource/people management to their partner. This allows both to focus on their core expertise. The following three aspects should be considered when selecting an insourcing partner:
Building the Right Resources
- HR and legislative requirements
It is critical that your partner company has solid HR processes that align with the insourced business and comply with the required local legislation. For example, in Japan a company must obtain a license to provide insourced staff whereas in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Singapore, this is not a requirement./
Ensure that your partner has the brand, systems and processes that allow it to attract, train and retain qualified employees with the right education, training and depth of practical experience to manage increasingly complex protocols and clinical trial processes.
- Local resourcing development
While some global organisations have excellent global processes and can transfer staff to local regions for long and short transitions to help with gap training, it is the development (attraction and retention) of local teams that can be a management challenge and requires significant focus. Consider if your partner can source and develop talent through various training programmes.
Whether resources are supplied via a partner or hired directly, requirements for the right resources do not change. Each company should consider the following aspects when developing their resourcing strategies:Recruitment & Attraction Strategies
The recruitment aspect of workforce planning is key to attracting the most suitable candidates and will vary from country to country. In developing a recruitment strategy, consideration needs to be given to salary equity, time frames for specific roles, promoting the attractiveness of the industry and the employer brand, in addition to the hiring processes which are used. If we look at Japan, a significant priority for candidates is the company brand, for example, who is the market leader, what is the company reputation, how attractive is the office and location? So a key strategy in Japan would include building your company image and leadership profile.
Within Asia Pacific, most companies offer competitive salaries and benefit packages including allowances for mobile phones, medical expenses, transport, meals and English language training. In addition, many of the higher achieving candidates are looking for skills enhancement training, management opportunities as well as the ability to continue their education within clinical development through conference attendance or other unique development opportunities. High candidate turnover has contributed to salary escalation, particularly in China and India. The offer of a sign-on bonus has become a popular method to entice candidates, particularly in very tight markets with a high incidence of counter offers, such as Taiwan. Being Aware of Recruitment Timeframes
It should be noted that the timeframe required to source new candidates can vary from country to country, ranging from 6 to 10 weeks in China and Taiwan, to 12 to 16 weeks in Korea and Japan. In general, a 4 to 8 week notice period is usual within Asia Pacific. However, there are exceptions. For instance, in Korea and Japan it can take considerably longer to recruit an employee due to the conservative nature of candidates and the commitment the candidate may feel to their current employer. In contrast, the timeframe can be shortened in India due to the local practice of buying out the employee's notice period.
Counter offers can also impact timeframes. In countries such as China, Korea, India and Taiwan there is high likelihood of counter offers as companies will do what they can to retain their staff. Having a well networked management and recruitment team who conduct robust interviews, maintain regular contact with potential candidates and continue to reinforce the benefits and prospects offered by the company, will have a positive impact to help minimise this occurrence.Promoting the Industry as an Attractive Proposition
The short term approach to sourcing candidates is competing for experienced staff from the existing talent pool and this can result in abnormal salary escalation and inequity within the existing group. Currently, the existing supply of experienced clinical research professionals will not meet future industry demands. Therefore, the pharmaceutical industry needs to become more proactive in showcasing its varied career paths and opportunities to rectify this situation.
Collaboration with universities to attract life science and medical graduates is one way of achieving this. Government initiatives and industry marketing are helping to attract graduates into medicine and science, which is further enhanced with the establishment of centres that focus on training medical graduates for clinical research. One example is the Centre for Translational Research in Health Sciences which was established in India. There has been an increase in collaboration between the industry and universities in Asia Pacific, particularly in China and India where there is a large proportion of scientific and medically qualified staff. India has the added advantage that a high percentage of these people also have good English language fluency levels. The continuance and development of these trends will help to address the constraints in clinical trial resourcing.
Once they are attracted, the training gap on the technical CRA skills continues to be a main concern for many companies in China, Japan and Taiwan. These companies need to consider how to build training into their resourcing strategy and whether they should utilise in-house resources, or outsource. Optimising your Brand
Brand is an important factor in this growing jobs market and within Asia Pacific; it represents, perhaps, one of the most important employment considerations for potential employees. A strong company brand represents leadership, reputation, compensation and benefits. For instance in this region, a global pharmaceutical brand will have a stronger attraction for prospective candidates more so than a local CRO.Social media, social gatherings and networking events are all channels through which companies can create awareness of their brand but, while a good brand can attract candidates, a brand that is not well regarded can be hugely detrimental to a company. Brand negativity can spread very quickly in what is a relatively small industry. Before implementing any social media strategy, the legal implications and alternative strategies should be evaluated carefully. Implementing Effective Hiring Processes
A consistent interview process with skilled managers who are trained in interview techniques will help ensure sustainable levels of high quality hires. In countries with strong labour laws, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, wrong hiring decisions can be costly to a company. Proper screening of candidates for the required skills and attributes should be implemented. At a minimum, this should include competency behaviour interviewing, reference and qualification checks and correct onboarding processes.Retention & Development Strategies
Staff turnover is reported to be in the region of 12 - 24 months for a CRA in China, Korea and India. The cost of turnover to an organisation is often quoted as 1.5 times salary. However, there are additional hidden costs such as the perceived quality of the organisation, it's brand and the effect on remaining staff. Also, the delays in sourcing a replacement candidate may lead to greater workloads for employees, which can result in job dissatisfaction, disengagement, stress and ongoing turnover.
Retention of employees depends on a number of factors including salary, career development, lifestyle, work challenges, management and training. Companies also need to adapt their strategies to meet their employees work/life balances such as increasing workplace flexibility, training via webinars and career secondments.
Relationships with managers and colleagues, particularly in countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, is also a key factor that impacts retention and should be monitored carefully.Within Asia Pacific, we often see clinical research professionals changing jobs just for title and/or salary enhancement. While there is no single solution to this complex issue, the instigation of suitable training programmes, a focus on employees' career goals and proper management procedures will aid in the retention of a company’s most valuable assets. Clearly, the level of retention will be greater with employees who are engaged and connected to their job. Engaged employees feel that their career goals are being acknowledged, that they have adequate workplace challenges and a clear vision of how their value and career will develop and grow within the company. Therefore, training and development is crucial to retaining your workforce, not only by developing employees on an individual basis, but by implementing clear career paths and titles that reflect career progressions in the organisation.Conclusion
Asia Pacific is experiencing high resourcing growth and this growth varies across the region. To source, recruit and retain a qualified and dedicated clinical workforce in the industry is an ongoing complex process, but awareness of local trends and perceptions and having access to flexible resourcing models will help to ensure that the resourcing needs of the future will be met.Marketing the benefits of contract employment will also help to overcome a cultural mindset in some areas where it is perceived that long-term security, career progression and greater opportunities are only accessible via direct employment with larger pharmaceutical organisations. This will be even more important as the number of trials increase in the region and global resourcing strategies increase the use of insourcing.
Training is also key, from developing entry level candidates to the ongoing development of the skills needed to manage the increasing complexity of trials and the more specialised skill sets required to evaluate the impact on health economics and outcomes research in the Asia Pacific region.
Companies that focus on employee and career development will generally be rewarded with increased retention and commitment from staff. In an environment where poaching is commonplace, a company may still experience staff turnover but with a strong brand, good training options from entry level to leadership, good management and opportunities for employees, the potential to retain staff is vastly improved.