Recruiting for Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Companies

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Nov 22, 2011

My firm, Clark Executive Search, recruits exclusively for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Since I have a background in science, we further specialize in recruiting only senior-level scientists with PhD degrees and medical doctors in the industries’ research and development departments. I recruit these individuals because they are fascinating, dedicated to saving lives, and are at the peak of the pharmaceutical ladder. Discovering drugs and then testing them with people is a highly technical field requiring advanced degrees. In addition, in order to be in management or lead a laboratory at these companies, a higher degree is a requirement.

The pharmaceutical industry presents unique challenges to executive search firms concentrating in the area. There is a huge learning curve for recruiters working a desk in this niche, and a scientific background is a must. This once-safe industry for recruiters has become much less so as pharmaceutical companies desperately try to solve their drug discovery problems through mega-mergers, buyouts, and outsourcing.

I chose this niche for a reason: I believe recruiting for this area is different from other areas, and I certainly won’t back down from a challenge!

First and foremost, I chose to recruit in the pharmaceutical space because of my scientific education, early recruiter training, the perceived safety of the industry, the variety of the searches, and the quality of the candidates I work with.

Before I started my business in 1997, I cut my teeth at a search firm that also concentrated in the health area. Interestingly enough I was the only person at the firm with a degree in science and I quickly learned I had an advantage over the other recruiters. After a few years I decided I could do better own my own and focus where my strengths were. Because of my science background, I have a deep knowledge of scientific buzzwords, which is an advantage when working with scientists and doctors. I am sure there are recruiters without a science background who work for pharma, but my niche in R&D is a bit too technical for the vast majority of recruiters. I knew my science knowledge would help establish my firm as a leader in the industry.

Another reason I chose to work in the area is that, at the time I started my firm, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries were believed to be recession-proof when it comes to employment and recruiting. It was thought that just as consumers always will need toothpaste, they would always get sick and require drugs. This theory still holds true, but as I’ll discuss shortly, the industry is not as safe a harbor as one would think, and recruiters in my niche are having as difficult a time as those who focus in other hard hit industries.

I stayed in the pharmaceutical space because each of my searches is unique and requires me to find vastly different candidates for each assignment. These diverse searches keep my brain active and challenged. I am always learning and I am never bored. Besides the specific industry news that all recruiters must stay in tune with, I have to keep up with the latest scientific developments as well.

I also picked this particular niche because I enjoy interacting with both my clients and candidates. The people in my network are highly educated with multiple degrees from the best schools. As they say, “The cream rises to the top,” and my candidates are polite, confident professionals who know the importance of networking with a recruiter. But more importantly, these people are fascinating individuals who are dedicated to saving lives. I am proud to represent them and enjoy following their careers and discoveries. There isn’t a day that I don’t want to go into my office.

Of course I have to admit another reason I picked this niche is because it can be lucrative. The higher education level of pharma and biotech workers means higher compensation than most industries. This translates into higher recruitment fees than average.

How recruiting for pharma and biotech is different than other industries

All industries have their own quirks, and industry specific knowledge is a must for any recruiter. However, I think the pharmaceutical and biotechnology world is more specialized than most industries, requiring an even deeper commitment on the part of recruiters to know their industry well. They must be able to deal with the scientific candidate, a different breed than most. They also have to have strong stomach for the current upheavals in the industry.

First of all, the candidates are different. Scientists and doctors require a different recruiting approach. They can’t be talked into anything, they don’t need help with their resumes or CVs, they don’t need to be coached for an interview, and you can’t try to control them. These are very intelligent people who think differently than most of us. Often money is not a driving factor for them. They want to discover drugs in the best place that will allow them to do this. At times it is difficult for them to leave a company, since they have their life’s work tied up at the company and want to see their drug go all the way to a marketed product, which takes 15 or more years. Career changes need to be well thought out, and people in the industry do not change positions as often because of this. It can be tricky to reach these candidates because they are either in their labs, managing a lab, overseeing a clinical trial, or in many other areas besides their desks. Email is the best method to contact the candidates, and because they are a group who grasps new technology quickly, they generally respond well to email. Candidates are judged by publications, scientific discoveries, or expertise in clinical trials. A candidate who has worked on a drug that has been approved by the FDA is especially worthy. A recruiter in this niche has to understand the drug discovery world in order to find the most qualified candidates. They have to be able to understand the research world and how to read scientific papers.

The world of biotech can be a roller coaster. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry have special stability issues related to the lengthy drug approval process, and recruiters in this area must understand how these companies work. Biotechnology companies are generally smaller than pharmaceutical companies and can be wonderful companies to recruit for. Upper management is easy to reach and often HR is not too engrained, if even present, in early startups. If a recruiter can provide expertise and value right from the start for one of these companies, then s/he can profit from many search assignments while the company adds new functions and departments as they grow to match the particular stage of their drug.

On the downside, these biotech companies are risky ventures because they often rely on one drug that could easily fail some important stage with the FDA. Often, to save money, these companies downsize to a few employees while they wait to be bought by a bigger company or for their drug to be approved.

Big Pharma used to be a stable industry for recruiting as well as for investing. However, the pharmaceutical industry is experiencing some challenges. The companies are not producing as many drugs as in the past, and they are running scared. The easy drugs, the low-hanging fruit, have already been discovered, and the FDA has gotten stricter in the last few years. The drug approval process takes longer and a drug approval is a long shot — a very expensive long shot. To make matters worse, many drug blockbusters are going off patent and the companies will lose billions of revenue. Pharmaceutical companies are utilizing several methods to fix these severe problems. They are merging with each other to reduce costs and they are buying small biotechnology companies for their more innovative drugs. But mergers can wreak havoc on a search firm’s business. Typically, after a merger, the need for recruitment services ends because there is an immediate hiring freeze. The newly formed company must sort through duplicate employees. Layoffs are common, including many of the recruiter’s key contacts. In addition to mergers and buyouts, companies are outsourcing more and more of their work to companies in Asia in order to save money. The scientist that gets paid $100,000 here receives around $30,000 in China. This outsourcing of course translates into less work for recruiters.

These industry-specific problems coupled with the challenges all recruiters face in today’s world of job boards, LinkedIn, and other Internet recruitment strategies mean tough times for recruiters in this space. I predict many firms will flee the pharma niche just as many came to the area during the boom times when the industry was seen as a safe haven from recession. However, executive search in the industry will continue, as there will always be a need for talent not using popular job sites or social media. Firms who have expertise in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry will survive.

image source: Michael Mortensen