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How to Stay Ahead of the Competition in a Challenging Pharmaceutical Job Market

How to Stay Ahead of the Competition in a Challenging Pharmaceutical Job Market


We have all heard the doom and gloom regarding the financial markets/ credit crunch/ recession. It’s pretty hard to escape it. The high earning bankers are jobless and the face of our high street is changing with high profile collapses of organisations including Woolworths, the Officers Club, MFI and Barretts.
Last Updated: 27-Aug-2010

We have all heard the doom and gloom regarding the financial markets/ credit crunch/ recession. It’s pretty hard to escape it. The high earning bankers are jobless and the face of our high street is changing with high profile collapses of organisations including Woolworths, the Officers Club, MFI and Barretts. It’s official, we are in a recession and according to the Office of National Statistics, UK unemployment had risen to 1.92 million in the last quarter of 2008 - the highest level since 1997 and is likely to reach 2 million soon.

The pharmaceutical market may not seem to have escaped the recession with a number of organisations citing hiring freezes and large scale redundancy announcements at Pfizer, GSK and AstraZeneca. But is it really all doom and gloom? The pharma market is set to hit a historic slow down in terms of growth but on the positive side, it is still growing. The global pharmaceutical market is expected to grow 4.5–5.5% in 2009, according to a recent analysis by IMS Health.

So, with an increased number of candidates competing for a smaller number of roles, how do you ensure that you stay ahead of the competition in this challenging job market? Here are some useful tips and ideas for current and future job searches within the pharmaceutical and related industries.

How to find out about job opportunities

Networking - I am sure you are all familiar with the obvious routes: internal job boards, trade press and job web sites. In the current marketplace, more and more individuals have to think laterally and use their networking skills to identify new career opportunities. Who do you know in other companies in your area of expertise that may be aware of openings? What companies are actually growing in this sector? It seems to be the smaller to medium sized companies that are mopping up talent from larger organisations that are restructuring. Face-to-face networking can be done with friends over a drink or dinner or by identifying suitable meetings and conferences, particularly those that build networking opportunities into the schedule.

Virtual networking and websites are ever increasing in popularity; the most commonly used one in business is Linked-in. This gives you the opportunity to link to business contacts, build networks with your existing contacts and, through them, widen your network on both a national and international basis. It also means that your background and skill set is easily identifiable to those who are seeking talent (with the added bonus of not looking like you are trying to get a new job if you are currently in employment). Networking sites are also used as discussion boards and to advertise job opportunities or a need for expertise in a specific area.

Executive search firms – As I work for one I am duty bound to mention how useful we are when looking for an opportunity, but we really can be… Executive search organisations, particularly those that specialise in your industry sector, have the advantage of knowing what is going on in the industry across a wide range of companies. They are aware of senior positions in the market some of which are not openly advertised externally and can help you to market yourself to potential employers. Some will also assist you by identifying suitable companies and discreetly find out if your skills set match any open opportunities. Ask your acquaintances which firms they rate. Contact headhunters directly, e-mail attaching an up-to-date copy of your CV and arrange a time to speak to them or if possible meet face-to-face. Be prepared to tell them about yourself and what you are looking for in your next career step. It’s much easier for a busy executive search consultant to remember a person they have had a conversation with than to remember one of the many CVs they receive on a daily basis. There is nothing wrong with keeping in contact with a headhunter on a regular, but not a daily basis.

Applying for opportunities

CVs - Do remember your audience. It may be a non-technical HR person within an organisation rather then a line manager who first reviews your CV. You need to be clear about what you have achieved and when. Busy recruitment managers or hiring managers do not have the time to trawl through a 20 page CV to find your roles and responsibilities. Key information needs to be presented in a clear and succinct format in the first 1 – 2 pages. Do make your CV stand out without going overboard, lots of colour and unusual fonts can be difficult to read, and remember it is well structured content that is important. A brief profile at the beginning, summing up your experience and key skills in 3 - 4 sentences is often a good idea. Tailor your CV, or at least your covering letter, to the role for which you are applying and highlight experience which is particularly relevant to that role. Don’t use jargon or abbreviations. Yes it may be a commonly used technical term, but companies have their own terms too, and not everyone can distinguish between them.

Interviews – Once you are lucky, or should I say skilled enough to get to the interview stage don’t blow it by being unprepared. A simple background internet search on the company and news articles relating to it will improve your chances of success. If you have a presentation make sure you have prepared it with plenty of time for rehearsal. Firm handshakes and first impressions are also important, so dress appropriately. If you have concerns or queries about the role it is good to ask but it’s advisable to leave the smaller details such as how many days holiday and the pension plan until the latter stages unless they are a deal breaker for you!

Have you thought about…

… Moving? Again, it is important to think laterally and to demonstrate some flexibility, if your sector or market is not doing so well. Where can you transfer your skills to? Are you able to relocate? Other European markets are fairing stronger than the UK in the global recession and are always looking for good international talent. It also makes sense to focus on the developing, fast growing “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India & China) countries which are growing even more strongly. China in particular is seen as the next big market and pharmaceutical companies are desperately trying to get a foot in the door which of course presents opportunities for experienced and skilled individuals. However you may not need to consider relocation. What about moving sectors within life sciences? Have you considered working for contract organisations, particularly as more and more large pharmaceutical companies remove areas such as clinical trials and manufacturing from their value chain and outsource to contract organisations. We have also seen a rise in the “virtual organisation” which uses internal matrix project teams to manage discovery, development and manufacturing projects via contract organisations. Can your skills transfer to that sort of environment? If not perhaps you need to get involved in more cross functional projects within your own organisation. Biopharmaceuticals is also a rapidly growing area within the pharmaceutical industry, with high profile examples of big pharma groups trying to get in on the act: AstraZeneca’s takeover of MedImmune and CAT and the potential hostile takeover of Genetech by Roche. Another more buoyant area at this time is the not for profit sector.


…Interim Management? Have you considered changing the way you work and using your experience to assist organisations as an interim manager? Interim management is a service delivered by an experienced professional quickly to fulfil a “hands on” role (operational or strategic) on a short term assignment without the time/cost of employing them. They are typically used at short notice for short and medium term high impact roles, and can incorporate the roles of consultancy and project management, planning and implementing change, so ensuring seamless delivery and full accountability. Interims operate on a freelance basis, and are either self-employed or work through their own limited companies. Interims are not temporary employees, but are professionals in business on their own account, with the risks and rewards that that implies. They are responsible for their own arrangements for holiday, pension, health insurance etc, and will normally carry professional indemnity insurance. This could provide you with the flexibility to work for a number of organisations without getting embroiled in company politics. Interim managers also require a special skill set – they are required to be credible, diligent and enthusiastic with a strategic mind set. They need to have the expertise to hit the ground running but be willing to be hands on when necessary. Of course excellent communication skills and the ability to influence and lead go without saying.

A final thought
Although the market seems bleak there are opportunities for those who are willing to think laterally and remain flexible. Most importantly, stay positive and driven in your goal to find a new position.