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Halycon Days.. Are they over now - CSL's Perception

Posted on: 02 Dec 09

Summary

The phrase Halcyon days is a literary commonplace in the English language English language and culture, signifying ideals of prosperity, bonhomie, joy, liberation, or tranquility. I can testify to experiencing all these sentiments having worked in Clinical R&D for nearing 30 years. I'm not so certain we'll ever return to the same again though.

The phrase Halcyon days is a literary commonplace in the English language English language and culture, signifying ideals of prosperity, bonhomie, joy, liberation, or tranquility. I can testify to experiencing all these sentiments having worked in Clinical R&D for nearing 30 years. I'm not so certain we'll ever return to the same again though. We face continuing readjustment for another 12 months for sure as industry realigns portfolios and mergers continue to gain momentum to improve shareholder value in the new world of accountancy driven decision making.

No day goes by now without 'phone calls from candidates concerned about jobs in Clinical R&D in the UK. As we reflect on 2009 at CSL we thank our lucky stars that we have been fortunate to have a steady, if evolving, flow of jobs despite the recessionary forces. However we have to admit now this 4th quarter has not brought any “quantitative easing” to our job market. Each week we speak to increasing numbers of anxious, experienced, dismayed colleagues who call us for reassurances about future prospects. Unfortunately, we have to now admit we are still witnessing a steady decline in UK based roles as companies merge, as new funding for riskier R&D remains restricted and as clinical research jobs move overseas where conditions for clinical study delivery seem optimal. The insight provided into some of the issues the UK faces at the recent ICR Ethics/GCP Forum did not reassure me that, despite impressive performance metrics in some quarters, we are addressing the industry concerns fast enough to convince companies that the UK remains a location to achieve results.


In our own sphere of vision within the UK, new headcount is rarer than ever and it's been worsening month on month from our perspective. As opposed to 80 genuine open roles 12 months ago, in November 2009 we have less than 40 jobs and 60% of the roles are outside clinical operations in allied areas or on contract. We witness evidence that companies are promoting and retaining current staff but unable to replace leavers. Only a handful of the top 30 Pharmaceutical clients we deal with are still recruiting permanent staff in Clinical R&D and when they are, we see selection processes becoming more rigorous. Telephone interview prior to face to face interview, presentations and aptitude testing are again prevalent and instead of one combined selection panel with speedy decision making, success is now more reliant on performance over 2-3 successive contacts. Technical skill, aptitude, potential and team “fit” is are being assessed thoroughly before decisions are made. There are now many 'overqualified' applicants, both UK based and ex-pats (returning from the equally tough US market), competing for each position in operations and middle-management. For CRA roles, location (to the detail of post code), therapy area skill, proven ability to influence REC/Trust discussion and target patient accrual and flexibility to travel is key. Recent work history is fully examined; decision making is protracted and if clients are not confident that the candidates will definitely add value to their organisation, they will simply not appoint. Moreover, an unprecedented number of roles which previously were automatically UK headcount are moved to other countries if the right talent, agility and versatility cannot be found here.

Contract opportunities are steadier in number, but are at more junior levels and of shorter initial duration, with budgets coming under very close scrutiny. For such roles, employment agencies are now frequently instructed to submit only their 'best 3' candidates within 2-3 days to ensure that only those who closely meet the role specification are submitted. Once a role is offered, initial durations of only three to six months are now the norm, with assessment of technical proficiency and prowess before extension.

In this market, the following candidates are finding it very hard to secure new jobs:

  • Those in the UK on a visa with no track record in Europe
  • Candidates who start a contract and then quickly springboard on (these are now considered a risk)
  • Field based and part time CRAs located outside the regional hubs who became contractors after too short a consolidated period of training
  • Candidates with a history of 'ad hoc' contract working
  • Those with high day rate expectations not supported by quantitative evidence of delivery on projects
  • People out of work for more than 12 months

Hiring managers are not prepared so readily to spend time reading into a CV. They can now wait for the right candidate with examples of targets reached, key achievements and objective, quantitative data in their CV. The agency screening of candidates, rather than simply processing CVs, has once more become a significant step in the selection process. Candidates with regular “job hopping”, unexplained gaps in employment, limited consolidated experience, the wrong therapy area competence or an inability to commit to office based work location where it's demanded will not be considered so easily.

Preparation for telephone interviews is more critical than ever, calls take up little time for the employer and are used increasingly. Candidates need to prepare for these calls even more thoroughly than for an in person interview, as there is only the voice and intonation to make an impression, with no appearance or body language. Candidates need to be better prepared too in relation to knowledge about the hiring company, ability to relay job requirements, justification for application and have examples of competence at their fingertips. Influencing skills, motivation to work in the role, capability in vendor liaison, leadership abilities and versatility are key in this market where outsourcing is so prevalent and only core skills are being retained in house.


At CSL we currently have nearly 500 candidates 'unemployed' or 'at risk' of redundancy in the coming 2 months. This represents some 11% of our active and browsing candidate pool. This time last year the figure stood at 49. Whilst a narrow insight we acknowledge, we see this as a significant shift, with increases month on month. Alongside some 'deadwood', significant numbers of credible, experienced people are now remaining out of work for approaching 12 months. Many of the candidates who seek home based, part time or roles in regional locations are finding it impossible to remain in continuous employment. Part time working is also under serious threat when redundancies occur. In this employers' market part time is not always justifiable even for those with rare skill sets in international clinical trial management, biometrics, translational medicine or international regulatory affairs.


Candidates who have failed to secure roles at interview via CSL have too often done so due to their inability to “tick all of the boxes” on non-technical aspects of job requirements. Feedback from interviewers has focused on increasingly non technical competence such as:

  • fear of disatisfaction due to overqualification for the role
  • patronising attitude/impatience/over confidence
  • overly familiar approach and language (using words like bulls**t or bum - yes, this happened)
  • inability to communicate using clear examples
  • lack of team 'fit'
  • misuse of technology (mobile 'phone ringing in the interview!)

Skill is no longer the key criterion for employment. Hiring companies are taking up informal references to determine track record before offers and asking candidates to fill in application forms to assess their commitment once more to dealing with process. “Interesting” candidates wearing 'dramatic' earrings or lime green socks with aliens on them and those who are at the higher end of the pay scale, who would have secured a role readily 2 years ago, are now finding it hard to find UK employment.


Salaries are as yet not so affected. Employers have not eroded pay levels but they are now regularly benchmarking salaries against one another and industry norms; most are still willing to provide incentives to attract the best talent. Salary rises have been 'at cost of living' , 0-3%, for nearing 2 years now and flat for those who are not exceptional. In some companies, there have been no rate/pay reviews across the board in the last 12 months. This has not notably increased staff turnover as employed candidates see the benefit of stability and security. The performance related pay element is an increasing facet with annual bonus awards dependent on both company and individual performance but making up between 12-25% of compensation.

Daily rates are significantly lower than 18 months ago except in some of the skills areas in short supply. Hiring companies often specify maximum rates on release of contract roles to agents and there is almost no room to negotiate on these apart from in exceptional circumstances. Where employers have introduced third party Managed Service Providers, rates are being whittled down in this market often impacting access for the 'best' candidates and flexibility to offer PAYE employment to contractors is being impacted as belts tighten. Securing a rate rise without promotion is very difficult as procurement and MSP models erode margin for agencies and reduce their ability to build in contingent sums for year end pay rises either.


We've been pleased to have 96% retention for our team of customer assigned staff, but we hear some horror stories as companies readily terminate if someone assigned does not meet the grade. Those new to contracting working through umbrella/offshore and other unsupported/risky employment models are particularly vulnerable when belts tighten or capability is in question. Working on only a few days notice, they are easy targets. Those with limited experience who oversell their abilities at interview seldom get the chance to shine either. One wise manager highlighted this to me, summating the issues he has asked his managers to be diligent for amongst the ambitious, well qualified new starts today, and indeed some of those with 'bad' habits who take on roles on contract.

  • Wanting to get through tasks fast rather than investing time and analysing what is to be done/seeking clarification on expected timeline and urgency
  • Forgetting to read or review the SOP/associated SOPs to define what other impact an action may have or require beyond their past experience
  • Being reluctant to admit lack of knowledge and instead of checking proceeding to take action based on assumptions which may be incorrect
  • Failing to do QC checks on own work or asking supervising managers to review in a timely way to secure feedback/consolidate knowledge
  • Taking off hand unsubstantiated 'praise' as gospel when managers fail to review and feedback on work product
  • Assuming when as task is completed that their manager will know it's complete
  • Not updating on progress or delays due to priorities changing

'The Halcyon days have gone' one UK Head of Clinical Research said to me this week in passing. Consensus is now amongst our employers, candidates and other agencies that we have difficult times ahead as companies merge and global access to patients and trial expertise increases around the developing world. We still see the most talented candidates securing 2-3 offers still but many candidates no longer have the luxury of options. Obtaining a diverse skill set and gaining experience within differing organisations (big vs.emerging pharma, CROs, biotech) is more critical to career success. Many candidates are currently in an employers' market and whilst opportunities still exist, competition is now very tough. You may find you have to return to the NHS, work in the public sector or move from home to maintain continuity of work.

Each day brings new (particularly senior) candidates whose jobs are at risk and more news of industry job cuts. Our agency focus has to be on detailed assessment and on finding candidates who meet all client requirements. Do not then be surprised if you are asked to fill in an on line application form or make time to attend face to face meetings with agencies to enable your representation. Good jobs are few and we all have to work smart to succeed in securing them. When jobs do present, they are already well subscribed by those anxious to find work and scouring the web so you cannot delay or await that headhunting call. To be certain of finding a role you must be active in presenting yourself well to the agencies who work with the clients who appeal to you. Note that by the time the role is in the public domain, the agency may be well through the selection for their best 3 candidates.


  • stand out as a contributor, avoid unnecessary sickness absence - this is under closer scrutiny in referencing
  • be content if you don't get a pay rise, aim to negotiate bonus instead for good contribution
  • build your presence through networking, visible contribution
  • summate your achievements, testimonials and cumulative experience as you go so you have it handy
  • access wider expertise and training whilst you can

If you are unemployed, review your options and try to meet face to face with agencies in your own time to build understanding and seek their help in focusing your search on the clients they represent. If you can move or weekly commute do so rather than joining the unemployed, this simply makes it harder to find a job.

In the current climate, those who have a job with prospects are fortunate. Those with the talent and ambition to succeed need to be prudent in their moves and seek out internal progression as well. Those that do not have jobs will now readily tell you how very difficult it can be to find another job if you lose the one you have.

Ann Maloney BSc FICR

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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