Closing the US pharmaceutical industry’s growing skills gap

Jim Sykes - Sector Managing Director, Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences and Professional Services, AMS
Chip Holmes - Managing Director, Client Services, AMS
Celine Raffray - VP Talent Acquisition, BMS
Beth Keeler - Associate Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition, Merck

The world is facing a talent crisis. In the US, there were almost two jobs available for every unemployed person in July, with wage inflation rampant and the Great Resignation making it even harder to keep the talent that organisations are able to bring in.

One industry facing particular skills shortages is the life sciences and pharmaceuticals industry. Buoyed by rapid investment and hiring during the pandemic - as the sector ramped up manufacturing to deliver life-saving vaccines to millions of people - life sciences has nevertheless faced long standing challenges in bringing new talent and skills into the sector.

Back in 2017, industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) warned that the US would need to hire 3.4 million employees to meet demand in life sciences and pharma by 2025, but that 60% of those jobs would be vacant due to skills shortages, a lack of effective education policies and increased competition for talent from other countries.

Skills mismatch

By 2020, a McKinsey & Co report into future pharma workforces concluded that 80% of pharma-manufacturing companies were reporting a skills mismatch, with the pace and scale of technological disruption key.

“Manufacturers are introducing advanced technologies, automating and digitising processes and applying advanced analytics to data. Pharma is also facing its own disruptions - for example, new business models (such as direct-to-customer sales and personalised medicine) and new product modalities,” suggests the report.

This reflects what Celine Raffray, VP Talent Acquisitions at BMS, sees in the modern day market.

“Like all companies in the life sciences sector we’re feeling the competitive nature of the jobs market, particularly for scarce skills such as digital or cell therapy. Whilst BMS has an incredible brand to leverage in order to acquire the best talent, I am very aware the challenge will only get greater in the coming years,” she says.

“As such, I see the need to be more agile and flexible and turn to innovative or inhouse solutions such as upskilling and reskilling of staff, enhanced internal mobility and the need to take a skills-based approach to talent acquisition as being of great strategic importance,” adds Raffray.

So how can the pharmaceutical industry meet the twin challenges of digital innovation and a growing skills gap?

“Historically, the life sciences sector hasn’t done a good job attracting talent from outside the sector. Instead, it has had a very heavy reliance on hiring job ready candidates rather than investing in campus or internship programs,” says Jim Sykes, Sector Managing Director, Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences and Professional Services, AMS.

“The challenge of this is that when you’re hiring job-ready candidates, you’re limited to headhunting talent from competitors. If you look at the market, you have increasing demand for pretty much any skillset, with attrition going up and unemployment going down. For me, the answer isn’t tactical, but rather it’s about more strategic approaches to how businesses approach talent,” he adds.

Sykes’ colleague, Chip Holmes, Managing Director Client Services at AMS agrees that the shortage of talent means that pharmaceutical companies have to rethink their talent strategies.

“For the first time, we have seen a greater willingness for talent to migrate out of the life science sector. Where organisations previously had attrition, it would usually be leaving one company in the sector to move to another. Now, we’re seeing people leave the industry altogether which is exacerbating the problems facing the sector,” he says.

The US life sciences industry needs to hire
3.4 million people by 2025

80% of pharmaceutical companies report a skills mismatch

The US life sciences industry needs to hire
3.4 million people by 2025

80% of pharmaceutical companies report a skills mismatch

New approach to talent acquisition

Changing the headhunting approach to talent means rethinking how pharmaceutical companies approach internal mobility, training and development and reskilling. Like other industries, more needs to be done in the life sciences to help existing employees update their skillsets to meet future demands - as well as engage them so that attrition falls.

However, actually creating effective reskilling programmes is still a challenge.

“A client of mine was going through a significant restructure. One therapeutic area was reducing significantly, while another was growing massively. You had a hiring freeze here, and a big recruitment drive there, but there was very little investment in crosstraining talent to facilitate moves between these therapeutic areas. With big pharma, the business units can be so big in their own right that they miss the opportunities to retrain talent,” says Sykes.

Those in industry agree that new ways of sourcing talent need to be developed to meet demand - but that doing so could also help diversify the industry. Beth Keeler is Associate Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition at Merck. She believes that transforming talent acquisition processes in the life sciences can bring new people into the sector.

“Hiring volumes at Merck, as with most companies inside and outside our sector, continue to be high and we certainly feel the competitiveness of the market when it comes to particular skills and geographies,” says Keeler.

“Amongst many initiatives, we are focused on transforming our talent acquisition processes to build long-term and diverse talent pipelines, creating more opportunities for those who haven’t been given a fair chance to gain qualifications for these roles. In doing so, we’re addressing the skills gap and building a better and more diverse organisation at the same time,” she adds. “We are proud to offer opportunities that provide purpose within a career through saving and improving lives while encouraging our employees to bring their authentic selves and various skill sets to our company to mirror the patients that we serve.”

Changing approaches to talent acquisition is one challenge - but how do you source people with niche digital skills who are in demand across different industries? As Sykes puts it - if your technological skills are such that you can work for tech companies like Apple or big banks like JPMorgan, pharmaceuticals is probably not going to be top of your list of employees.

Develop branding

The solution requires swallowing some pride and reasserting why the industry is a great place to work.

“In a lot of larger companies, there’s an assumption that everyone wants to work for them. The reality is that people now are less concerned with where they work than with what they do,” says Holmes.

“Organisations need to think about segmenting and differentiating their brand to target different groups of talent,” agrees Sykes. “The idea that you would go to market with a brand just as adept at hiring manufacturing talent as digital or clinical talent is nonsense. Tailor your brand to talk specifically to the talent you want to attract.”

“There is a golden opportunity now for Life Sciences companies.  As a result of COVID, people now hold pharma and life sciences in higher esteem than ever before due to the amazing contribution to society that the companies have made. There is an opportunity to make a massive leap in attracting talent from other sectors.”

written by the Catalyst Editorial Board

with contributions from:

Jim Sykes
Sector Managing Director
Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences and Professional Services, AMS
Chip Holmes
Managing Director, Client Services, AMS
Celine Raffray
VP Talent Acquisition, BMS
Beth Keeler
Associate Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition, Merck