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How to stand out to top R&D talent as an employer

Posted on May 2023

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Discover insights from Principal Consultant Ed Curry ahead of the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGCT) annual meeting in May 2023.

With a particular passion for drug discovery and pre-clinical, Ed works with top life sciences employers and successfully builds and manages their R&D talent pipelines. In this interview, Ed shares his thoughts on how employers can stand out to R&D talent and give themselves the best chance at attracting top talent. Ed will be covering topics such as how employers can create a compelling offer, streamline their hiring process, and how to differentiate yourself from competitors.

What is the talent market like right now in R&D?

Talent remains a top challenge for those hiring. A recent C-suite survey by Deloitte noted that bringing on and retaining talent is a top priority for business leaders, and even more narrowly in the MedTech space, there is a focus in recruiting in the R&D market.

The market is still very hot, but macroeconomic conditions have had an impact of course when it comes to hiring. We have seen some companies reduce headcount or even close their doors through sometimes no fault of their own, in part because of such high interest rates. To an extent it could give the illusion that the candidate pool is larger and that they have more options, but it actually isn’t that clear-cut. For example, with a recent role we saw 80 applicants, but only four of them actually had the required skillset. Top talent is therefore always in demand, but it is also always harder to find.

These conditions can also result in top talent becoming even more passive to new opportunities, due to the uncertainty. Unfortunately, we have recently seen great companies making layoffs, and some candidates can be concerned about being the last one in. These people are who would fill those business-critical roles, so it is up to us as a leading talent partner to source from a tight talent pool and work with a candidate to enable that move, even in more precarious economic times. Finding the right people as market specialists is what we do best.

How can organizations win over the most sought-after talent in a highly competitive space?

Macro events are playing on people’s minds, and as a result of this great science is not the only selling point when obtaining talent. Promising biotechs have had to lay off great scientists for example, demonstrating that not every project can be pursued. Informing candidates about an exciting project is not enough anymore, instead companies recruiting need to outline short, medium, and long-term plans. They also need to talk about what funding they have, because top professionals may be incentivized to move to somewhere they perceive as more stable.

Just like a relationship is 50/50, an interview should be the same. We recommend that clients should sell themselves and the company as much as they expect the candidate to sell. Strong professionals are going to be interviewing elsewhere, so consider that they are also interviewing you. Also, remember to do this from the very start, and not just at the end of the process. From the very first interview, hiring managers, HR, and talent acquisition are being equally interviewed by talent.

Another aspect for organizations to consider highlighting is the growth opportunities you offer, and how you set up people for success. Alongside career advancement and skill development, professionals still put a premium on a good work/life balance, with company culture also playing a part here.

What talent strategies would you recommend to hiring managers to differentiate themselves from other players in winning talent?

My number one recommendation is to streamline candidate onboarding. Lack of speed results in candidates going elsewhere and interview fatigue is a real problem, so set yourself apart with being quick. Instead of three interviews, get all three people into one and cut down stages, because when top talent is scarce, they will be looking at other opportunities.

Another strategy to implement is aligning your selling points to the individual interviewing where possible. This means getting to know the person interviewing really well to understand their own unique motivations, as well as working with a talent partner who has that information. For example, I recently worked with a single parent and placed them into an organization that could accommodate the flexible working policy they desired.

Also assume that good candidates will be getting multiple offers, so don’t put people on the backburner. Give feedback where possible, because communication is super important. We’ve seen a client not progress with an individual, but because they gave comprehensive feedback, and I fed this back as well, it led to that person actually recommending a colleague of theirs for the role, who was actually placed. Reputation is critical, as both a company and a hiring manager.

Where (if any) can organizations look for transferable skills to fill talent gaps?

‘Purple unicorns’ do exist, but as their name suggests, they are hard to find. Sometimes a job description will describe something that isn’t possible, so I find it is very important during the intake call to differentiate between what is a nice to have, versus a must-have. Let’s take a neuromuscular R&D role where the client is working on Huntington’s and Parkinson’s projects. If a candidate has worked in the past on muscular dystrophy, is that okay for the client? That candidate might not know the particular disease inside out right now, but they can apply a similar knowledge and skillset to another disease. Here is where clients can make concessions, and also attract different talent.

Consider looking towards adjacent industries, such as tech talent migrating into life sciences. As more and more biotechs develop a tech-focused footprint, there are only going to be so many life sciences professionals to go around, so maybe tech talent is where the industry can look for individuals who have a passion to make a difference in life sciences.

How can tackling bigger, societal issues such as ED&I and ESG assist with talent attraction and retention?

This is one of the reasons I love working in life sciences because I am fortunate to work with mission-driven individuals. The industry is one of the best places to tackle wider societal issues, it is a diverse sector that tackles these challenges head-on.

I have noticed younger talent seems to think aligning values is very important, and that trend will only continue. Life sciences as an industry is addressing bias in clinical trials as historically there may have been some selection discrimination. The industry is also looking at how it can tackle climate change, for example one organization is exploring how it can genetically modify cows to decrease methane production.

How do you see this market developing over the next 12 months?

We saw just a few years ago clients throwing everything at candidates to get them in the door. This resulted in compensation, as well as title inflation. With the new macroeconomic environment, funding is tighter, and therefore being able to offer such compensation now may be a little trickier. The industry is now reverting back to normality after Covid-19 resulted in a lot of investment being funneled into it.

The cost of living is also increasing, and this may mean that academic professionals may move from educational institutions to more lucrative roles. Last year was historically low for mergers and acquisitions in life sciences as well, but we do expect that to pick up. It will be interesting to see if cutting-edge, start-up biotechs partner with big pharmaceuticals, which provides an interesting science angle to candidates, with the funding backing and runways of a big player.

As mentioned earlier, the tech industry has experienced change and we have seen more appetite for tech talent. DNA sequencing and automation in labs for example, as well as data processing, requires tech talent, so I believe we will continue to see movements from Big Tech to biotech. Organizations are spending billions on technology to advance their programs and products, so it’s important to mention machine learning and AI professionals as in-demand talent for the next 12 months and onwards.

Finally, I firmly believe that venture capital will also invest in healthcare at large. Healthcare accounts for one-fifth of US GDP, so financial experts know it is a worthwhile investment. Therefore, while macroeconomic conditions have been a little pessimistic recently, 2023 and the year ahead is going to be great, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

Meet Ed at the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGCT) annual meeting, or get in touch using the form below to discuss your hiring needs.

Edward Curry

Principal Consultant

​Request a call back from Ed

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