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2021 – The Pandemic’s Surprising Impact on Hiring in the Life Sciences

Bringing Top Players on Board is now HARDER than ever.

Cari Kraft

CEO, Jacobs Management Group, Inc.

Yes – Harder.  While this seems counter-intuitive, the actual demand for talent in the Medical Device, Pharma and Biotech industries has returned to pre-Pandemic levels. At the same time, it has become even more difficult to entice away qualified candidates from their current positions.

While there is not a large amount of data that has been collected, the information that has suggests that Life Sciences hiring has remained steady.  According to RSM’s October 2020 Report, Life Science Industry Outlook, Life Sciences hiring has quickly rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels.  In one of their key takeaways, they shine a light on our industry “A rapid recovery in employment for life sciences companies will reignite the race for talent that characterizes hiring in this industry. … Like nearly all industries, life sciences saw significant decreases in payrolls in Q2, but was able to quickly recover to levels last seen in October 2019

This  rebound in hiring is corroborated by a June 2, 2020 study completed by MassBioEd on the Life Sciences Workforce, which shows that hiring levels in May 2019 compared to May 2020 were roughly the same.  

Why are we experiencing this phenomenon?

Companies have held on to their own and are keeping their best people.

Employees appreciate the response their companies have had to the pandemic and what they have done to keep them employed.  Companies that succeeded in helping their employees during the pandemic were able to hold on to their best people during the recovery.  Employees who have benefited are not likely to abandon ship.  It is not surprising that an October Science survey of 7,600 of pharma and biotech company employees that shows loyalty has become one of the top 5 characteristics that employee’s value.  Company loyalty is valued now even more than the quality of top leadership was in 2019.

Candidates are more risk averse about making a change.

Considering the overall climate of uncertainty, including massive job losses and economic volatility, employees are extremely cautious about making a move.   Thoughts about considering making a job change often mirror how people feel about other decisions.  In this time of uncertainty, it makes sense that candidates are more conservative and more risk-averse from the economic stresses from the pandemic.   Many top candidates decline to even have a conversation as they just cannot imagine making a change now.   As candidates put aspiration on hold over their needs for stability, there are fewer candidates available to create the talent pool.  

Companies are looking for even more specific talent.

Not only do Life Sciences company’s want the highly specialized skills and experience required before the pandemic, but they are also looking for the additional skills that have been identified for success in the post-Covid workplace: strong communication, ease with technology and a flexible, adaptable approach to their work. 

Employers using direct job boards, such as Indeed for example, are overwhelmed by the multitude of CVs for a position. Yet, the quality and relevance of applications is much lower. Those few ‘top’ candidates are being missed in the sheer time-sapping review process.

It is not surprising in a recent survey of 563 US Employers by Online HR resource site XpertHR that recruiting and hiring sits at the top of their expected workplace challenges for 2021 list.

Successful recruiting requires an extremely high touch

Jacobs Management has found that the number of times they connect with a candidate to recruit and connect with them has risen more than 400% since March 2020.  And we were known as a high touch organization prior to the pandemic.  With the risk adversity candidates experiencing at this time, having multiple interactions with the candidate throughout each stage of the process has become critical.  

As the process has become more digital, it is even more critical to identify the places to create candidate connection, communicate your culture and manage the candidate experience.   

Design your Touch Points

In the pre-pandemic process, connections were built during the informal moments in the interview process such as an introduction made on the way in or out of an interview, creating the ability for an informal chat.  As lockdowns continue, how do you create those same moments?  You might consider an on-line waiting area as a candidate “arrives” for an interview and have someone from the team great them in an informal way before letting them into the meeting. How else can you start to really build a connection in a Zoom meeting?  

Review your Employee Value Proposition (EVP)

We all spend a lot of time working on our company value proposition.  At this critical time in hiring, we find it even more important to consider their Employee Value Proposition (EVP).   Second only to your corporate brand, the EVP is the most important message potential employees get about your company’s work culture. An on-target  EVP will help attract the candidates you want, while highlighting those that do not match with your culture and values.

Manage candidate engagement throughout the cycle

In the beginning of the interview process, a candidate’s excitement is high.  Do not let that wane.  Give them a concrete idea of next steps and the time frame. If you don’t follow through, or update them on changes, disappointment steps in.  And don’t forget to pay attention to all your top candidates.  With the shortage of top talent, companies who don’t move quickly are finding their first candidate is gone, so you want to make sure your second choice remains engaged.    

Safety and Flexibility are the new norms

Considering the unprecedented challenges we’ve faced over the last 12 months, candidates have their attention on safety and take that into consideration in their decision making.  Candidates are going to want to understand how you have, and will, manage safety going forward.  They want clear assurances that you have both a work at home and an onsite personal protection policy well in place.    Business Insider hit the nail on the head with their August 2020 article, “Safety is the new workplace ‘perk’ job seekers will be evaluating when applying to companies”. Candidates are paying close attention to how companies had addressed safety during the worst of the pandemic, as well as their future plans. As you prepare your interview team, it’s more important than ever before that they are up to date on your safety plans.  

Flexibility with remote work is becoming the way of the future

Now the continual question of whether to consider hiring remote employees requires greater attention.  With remote work becoming the norm for many positions, companies that require candidates to move to an onsite location are at disadvantage. People are getting used to working from home.  In fact, many have already taken the opportunity to live where they want, to be closer to family or find a lower cost of living.   “14 to 23 million Americans are planning to move as a result of remote work. Combined with those who are moving regardless of remote work, near-term migration rates may be three to four times what they normally are.” according to an October 2020 study by UpWork: Economist Report, “Remote Workers on the Move.”.   The greatest portion (20.6%) of those moving away from major cities, where many Life Sciences companies are based.  Given the shortage of talent pools, restricting a position by not affording remote work makes recruiting that much harder.  

Remote work seems to have become mostly a win-win. The January 2021 PwC US Remote Work Survey finds that “Remote work has been an overwhelming success for both employees and employers. The shift in positive attitudes toward remote work is evident: 83% of employers now say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, compared to 73% in our June 2020 survey”.  Remote/hybrid work will likely be the norm for 2021, and into the foreseeable future, the PwC report says. Introducing digital collaborative platforms and allowing for personal choice in how work gets done are at the top of the list in making remote work sustainable.

Companies that offer work from home are going to have the advantage in recruiting the talent they need. Recent McKinsey Global Institute research found that more than 60 percent of the management, technical, and scientific roles in Life Sciences companies could be performed remotely. “Many life sciences companies have noticed a spike in employee efficiency in office workers without long commutes and the flexibility to work when they can be most focused, even for their most senior leaders,” according to their October 2020 report.  

Given the new normal incorporates remote working, and the limited talent pool in Life Sciences, really think through whether or not your positions can be done remotely.  

Be Prepared to Speed Up the Process

Whenever we have a shortage of top talent, speed becomes even more important because candidates are scooped up quickly by employers.   Jacobs Management Group has found that most candidates that move into the offer process are being pursued by multiple employers.  While it is a cliché – time is of the essence.  Speed to interview—and to make an offer—are intense areas of focus right now.

Pay even more attention to alignment 

Step one is to be on the same page. According to a study performed by the Corporate Executive Board Recruiting Roundtable, the recruiting side and the hiring manager side of the organization are not on the same page.  In fact, “(63%) of hiring managers feel that recruiters do not understand the jobs they are trying to fill.”  So, make sure there is extra communication at the beginning of a search.  

Shorten the process

With most interviews happening remotely, it is a little bit easier to schedule interviews, so take advantage to reduce lag time.  Be prepared to make offers more quickly than before.  Gone is the luxury of long deliberations. Realizing how small your pool of top candidates is, companies are move faster than ever before on a hiring decision.  If you wait, your candidate is likely to take another offer.

Stay close at the offer/acceptance stage in process and communicate.   

Managing the offer is a delicate balancing act. The need for speed is almost completely contrary to the current candidate risk aversion and everything usually comes to a head in the offer process.  The amount of communication required at the final offer/acceptance stage of the recruiting process has dramatically increased.  At Jacobs Management Group we have revised our candidate closing process to add in additional pre-offer communication, more scheduled offer discussions, and post offer touch points to ensure we keep our 98% candidate success ratio.  Discussions of areas such as remote on-boarding and how candidates can build their reputation remotely have also now become standard components of the process.   

Summary

Hiring in Medical Device, Pharma, and Biotech Industries has bounded back to pre-Pandemic levels. However, companies are inundated with more unqualified candidates than ever before. The talent pool is staying loyal to the companies that have taken care of them during the pandemic. Working at home, with attention to safety and flexibility, have become the new normal. The recruiting process has become more high touch and it is important to keep everyone involved in the communications, especially the candidate. At the same time gone are the days of long deliberation, as more fleet footed competitors will snatch up your top candidates.

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