December 1, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 21)

Essential for Contract Reseach Organizations’ Fluctuating Employment Needs

Over the last decade, biotechnology companies have gained visibility as the investment community views the high potential return afforded by the expensive drugs they produce. With investors pumping so much money into research, biotech companies are racing to get their drugs to market first. Also, biotechnology companies are exploring more ways to obtain longer patent rights as well as FDA protection, like orphan drug status, to protect their investments. Before the drugs can be sold to the public, they must pass preclinical and clinical trials. All this increased activity has facilitated a surge in job openings.

A Job-seekers Market

One of the best indicators of overall growth in the biotech job market is growth in CROs. As a result of the need for a faster development processes, CROs and others that support biotechnology are in a period of rapid growth and many are experiencing a talent shortage. Subsequently, CROs rely on staffing firms to attract the experienced scientists they need.

CROs have seen measurable growth recently. For instance, one of the largest CROs in the U.S. has doubled in size, adding 700,000 sq. ft. of new space and offering several hundred new positions. As a result of this high demand and lack of candidates, salaries are increasing.

Some of the highest positions currently in demand include preclinical pharmacologists, bioanalysts, toxicologists, and analytical chemists. Three of the most prevalent skill sets staffing firms are recruiting for include Master’s-level cell biologists with a few years experience, chemists with good manufacturing practices, and those with previous manufacturing experience in cells or compounds, including manufacturing technicians working the line and developing pharmaceutical drugs or large-scale proteins.

However, while candidates are reaping the benefits of the job market, companies are feeling pressure on their bottom lines. Inflation and rising employment costs are both side effects of staffing up. Because trial staff work in teams, they grow exponentially. Every study-director position that is filled is followed with the need to fill support staff positions such as lab technicians.

Not a Quick Fix

Staffing firms are relied upon to understand the trends and business drivers facing biotechnology companies and thus locate candidates with specific skills. Recruiters with science degrees at staffing firms develop relationships directly with hiring managers and prequalify candidates. In addition, staffing-firm recruiters save companies on administrative costs, understand current employment laws such as co-employment, and have higher retention rates for the candidates they place.

CROs should bring in an outsourcing partner early enough in the process so the client and provider can co-develop success criteria and define strategies for fulfilling the client’s needs. By bringing in the staffing partner early on, the company can develop a proactive, rather than reactive, strategy. A reactive strategy can negatively impact outcomes and also hinders the relationship-building process, whereas a partnership built early on can benefit from the experiences and knowledge base of both companies.

Once a drug is ready for preclinical testing, CROs must staff up quickly. However, locating qualified and experienced talent on short notice may pose a problem, as traditional job postings may take several months to fill. It is important to note that job growth is highest within certain geographic regions. Specific areas with the highest demand include Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland in the east; Irvine, Orange County, and San Diego in the west; and Madison, WI, and Chicago in the midwest.

As a result, CROs may need to look outside of their geographic region to find a larger pool of qualified professionals. Proactive relationship building increases the opportunities to identify potential obstacles and remedies before they are necessary. For example, a staffing firm with a national distribution of offices can pull talent from a broad geographic area and relocate people from coast to coast, quickly filling a job opening.

Reactive strategies on the other hand, such as attempting to identify a partner in a time of performance panic, yield only increased frustration and stress. Such strategies could negatively impact timelines and deliverables. With no time to adequately co-develop a strategic plan, the focus will be on getting the job done as quickly as possible because the timelines have already been severely compromised. This approach could result in a decrease in quality and efficiency and will add to the overall financial burden.

Staffing firms also offer an advantage to CROs who hire staff on a contract basis. Many CROs have temp-to-hire positions, which allow companies the opportunity before making a permanent hire to see the quality of a person’s work and how well they fit in with the company culture. They can also simply staff talented people for the length of a project but avoid the sizeable search fee that accompanies direct hiring. Candidates often find this option appealing because it affords them the opportunity to gain experience with multiple companies and sometimes various industries.

One of the most important factors in developing an optimal relationship is to choose a staffing provider whose corporate values match those of the CRO. Understanding that both companies conduct business with the same underlying values helps the relationship succeed because both sides enter the arrangement with a level of trust.

Forging a Beneficial Staffing Relationship

Another key success factor is to develop a joint ownership mentality. Rather than throwing the project over the fence with the expectation that the staffing provider will deliver without company involvement, there should be clearly defined expectations and joint ownership, problem-solving, and escalation plans. The joint ownership mentality eliminates the us-versus-them mindset. When problems do occur, the solution will be much easier to identify and implement if the company and provider work together as a team and jointly take responsibility.

Providers should also be willing to make their performance highly visible so the CRO is always aware of current activities. This can be accomplished through regular face-to-face meetings as well as such tools as performance metrics, quarterly business reviews, and frequent progress reports. The more visible providers make their current and past performance levels, the more proactive they can be at identifying the actual level of performance as compared to the expected level of performance. This kind of visibility and full disclosure enhances the level of trust.

Having flexible and scalable workforce solutions is another key element that CROs should look for. A staffing partner should be able to choose talented professionals with the proper skills and relevant experience, as opposed to solely entry-level candidates. The firm should have a proven track record of recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining the talent needed for the full life of a project.


With biotech growing, the right staffing decisions can be crucial to a company’s success. Choosing a staffing partner with a wide breadth of experience that can act more as a consultant can help CROs meet goals quickly.

A staffing partner that provides the best practices and recommendations, along with the most talented pool of candidates, will allow CROs to focus on their core goals of developing drugs for FDA approval.

Debra Brady Wolfe is group president of Kforce Scientific Staffing. Web: Phone: (913) 890-0500. E-mail: dwolfe@

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