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Dec 1, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 21)

Employment Trends in the Biotech Industry

A Stong 2005 and Projections of an Even Stronger 2006

  • It's a very aggressive hiring market right now, says John Radford, senior vp of Aon Consulting's Radford Survey group (San Jose, CA).

    The Radford Survey has been the leading indicator of compensation and employment trends in the biotechnology industry for many years, and human resources people generally pay very close attention to the data that Radford's firm develops.

    "We've been on the road doing workshops with senior HR staff in biotech companies over the last couple of months, and I usually start out by asking them who's hiring. It's a question that gives me some immediate feedback on the state of the job market," says Radford, whose organization has recently traveled through Boston, New York/New Jersey, North Carolina, and California.

    "My impromptu survey results tell me that 8090% of biotech companies are back in some type of hiring mode. Sure, there are some individual companies who are experiencing difficulties and laying off staff, but these are in the minority. There's a lot of growth right now. But it's not the same type of growth as we've seen in previous years."

    Rodney Moses, vp talent acquisition for Invitrogen (Carlsbad, CA), says that things are hot right now for employment at this supplier firm.

    "We have almost tripled our hiring from last year and expect to hire over 800 professionals primarily in the areas of drug discovery, operations, R&D, and sales. We are seeing a lot of new jobs in the biotech sector and expect 2006 to be equally demanding."

  • Different Job Market

    Invitrogen's situation isn't unique for companies that are actually selling products. Due to the continued maturing of the biotech industry, many of 2005's hiresand those projected for 2006are not the same research scientist jobs we've seen in past years.

    "Many companies are moving to commercialize right now, which means that they may be staffing up by adding an entire sales force, or going after clinical and regulatory staff, manufacturing crews, and more. It's a time when some of these larger employers actually have hundreds of open requisitions again," notes Radford.

    Stephanie Britt, director of clinical staffing for Metropolitan Research Associates (New York City) agrees, and believes that a lot of this job growth is a result of a product-driven industry after years of research boutiques dotting the biotech horizon.

    "Companies are pushing to get their products to market, so there is a great need to hire trained clinical research professionals to get through clinical trials and the approval process.

    "There is a high demand for seasoned clinical research professionals, in particular clinical research associates, clinical trials managers, clinical operations managers, and outsourcing managers," says Britt.

    While many people think of jobs such as these and others in manufacturing and regulatory affairs when talk turns to commercialization, there are other categories of jobs that become just as crucial when companies start to produce revenue through product sales. Two of these are finance and administration.

    Pat Abbott, an independent biotech human resources consultant in the Boston region, finds herself assisting her clients regularly in these areas.

    "I would say that looking both back and forward, the hot jobs today are in the finance arena. Start-ups as well as established companies are recruiting all levels of finance people as soon as they become available. Also, I've found that CEOs are in demand and open positions seem to hang around quite awhile."

    Abbott believes that as the industry and talent pool matures, individuals who have worked long hours will often look to consulting for a better work-life balance. CEOs with experience from more than one biotech company are now often seen consulting as opposed to taking the risk once again.

    "Gone is the perception that consultants are executives who are in between opportunities," adds Abbott.

  • Hot Research Careers

    One vp of human resources for a California company with over 100 current openings agrees with John Radford about the growth due to commercialization, but adds that there are still hot areas of research job growth.

    "While there is a lot of growth in the operations and business areas of our company, there are several key programs here looking for scientists with in-demand skills. Those include fields such as vaccines, RNA interference, and molecular diagnostics," she explains.

    Lee Jensen, CEO of the Bio.com website agrees, and makes his own projection as well.

    "RNAi is indeed hot, especially in the contexts of high-throughput screening for drug targets and delivery in-vivo. But we've also found that stem cell research promises to open big opportunities for cellular and developmental biologists. While the field may remain stymied by politics and litigation in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, if you're looking out a few years the opportunities will be huge."

    Bio.com represents just one of the biggest employment trends of the last few years; that is, the move to pull in job applicants via the internet. Other firms such as Adsumo.com and ScienceCareers.org are reporting the same kind of growth that Jensen has seen.

    Bruce Leander, president of Ambion (Austin, TX), believes this is a trend for the future as well."Companies are increasingly utilizing the internet to view and process job applicants, and the competition between companies for these candidates is getting a lot tougher," reports Leander.

    "We are finding that when we interview someone now, they often have competing offers from another one or two companies at the same time."

  • Loss of the Passive Candidate

    This reliance on the Internet is frustrating to many independent biotech recruiters, who believe that biotech employers are missing out on an important piece of the candidate pool. For years, human resources staff noted the difference between "active" and "passive" candidates. The active candidates are those who are in the job-search mode. Passive candidates are buried in their work and not considering a change (that is, until they get a phone call that starts them thinking about their options).

    "Recruiters, by their nature, can work in any field they find hot, and therefore are only partially affected by the employers' move to internet job sites," says Linda Todten-Jensen of CareerTrax (Sedona, AZ).

    "However, we see every day that this focus on the internet can hurt employers. They often miss out on those candidates who are currently in jobs they are doing well at, but who aren't reading internet ads," reports Jensen.

    "These passive candidates are a key part of what external recruiters bring to the table. The internet just doesn't reach out and get someone to think about an opportunity like a call from a headhunter does," says Todten-Jensen.

    HR staff disagree about the long-term value of independent recruiters to biotechnology employers. To some, the internet has totally replaced their use of external resources. To others, such as that California company with more than 100 current openings, these outside resources are critical partners in the hiring process.

    The competition is getting tougher for good candidates. Radford describes how companies plan to manage this competition for job applicants.

    "Two major issues emerged from our seminars with human resources," says Radford. "For one, recruitment is again a major focus for these departments. And because they all want experienced staff, many times this means identifying people at the competition. This leads to the second major issueretention."

    It doesn't appear that new graduates or postdocs will be able to fill these job requisitions for newly-commercialized firms. Instead, it may be company versus company, with recruitment efforts geared to take experienced staff from wherever they can be found, even if it is at that friendly company right down the street.

    "Retention programs must clearly identify the reasons why an employer is the best place to work," says Todten-Jensen. "As hiring begins to get more aggressive, employers need to be prepared for more voluntary turnover, and a strong retention program is the best defense.

    "If the industry continues to have so few training programs to get people moved over from the too-full academic pipeline, then we'll all be fighting tooth and nail for the best people who already have that experience."

  • Salaries and Benefits

    One positive trend for most biotech employees is that as competition rises, so do salaries.

    "There are some strong signals that the market in general is heating up. The jobs we track in our compensation surveys show some definite, and in many cases significant, upward movement. This seems particularly true in middle management positions," says one vp of HR for a larger biotech employer in the Southwestern U.S.

    Most HR execs have seen salary increases this year average in the 35% range, which of course varies based upon location and job type.

    Stock options, an important part of the picture for biotech hiring, are also going through a time of change. Ellie Cantor, president of CJ Resources (Malvern, PA), believes that they have assumed less importance in the recruitment process.

    "Many people have gotten burned in the past by stock options, and they're looking for better ways to be compensated for the risk they take in joining young companies," says Cantor. "Once you are on your third or fourth venture where stock options haven't paid off, it's really hard to get excited about putting a large percentage of your income into options."

    John Radford's firm notes that there are some significant changes coming for biotech employers, who must account differently for the cost of these options for employees.

    "Because of legal changes in the way that companies must account for stock option programs, the industry is moving from a strictly stock option culture to a new scenario, where stock options will be only one piece of a number of alternative long-term equity vehicles," according to Radford.



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