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Talent Trap

The clinical research sector, according to studies analysing the segment, is poised for continued growth in the next few years, spurred on by rising outsourcing demands from biopharmaceutical developers – particularly those involved in the biosciences. This trend should bode well for the labour market targeted by CROs, in an industry that reportedly encompasses more than 1,700 businesses and currently generates $16 billion in annual revenue (1).

Individuals hoping to launch or advance careers in this space stand to benefit from the growing number of full-service, strategic partnerships struck between biopharma sponsors and CROs across the clinical development and therapeutic spectrums. However, as these arrangements increase in number and cover wider global territories, so does the competition for clinical research professionals. As a result, the challenge of attracting, developing and retaining best-in-class talent – across key functions such as clinical directors, project managers, trial leaders, clinical research associates (CRAs) and clinical monitoring associates – has, perhaps, never been greater.

For CROs, efforts in this area are essential to their ability to deliver on the evolving requirements of sponsors – and, ultimately, drive company growth. To that end, the need to carefully and continuously evaluate varied engagement approaches is critical. This process should involve several considerations, including identifying the technical and functional skills that are, and will be, in highest demand; using technology to maximise targeted outreach campaigns; implementing ongoing training and career growth programmes; and exploring new ways to enhance the employee experience. Addressing these factors will better equip CROs to meet or exceed their expectations as added value for sponsors, while also strengthening the value proposition for individuals eager to enter the field, and for those existing experts and leaders in the industry seeking new opportunities.

Market Appeal

The CRO industry has experienced an annual growth of 10.9% during the past five years (1). Reports attribute this steady surge to the proliferation of more full-service arrangements with sponsors, from product initiation to approval. Another major driver has been the need for cost savings in R&D amid tightening economic constraints. Furthermore, recent analysis of the bioscience segment found that jobs in the research, testing and medical laboratory sectors increased by 28.1% from 2001 to 2012 (2). According to this report, US bioscience companies employed 1.62 million people in 2012, and during the past decade added almost 111,000 new positions, or nearly 7.4% of its employment base. Meanwhile, in Europe, the biotechnology sector grew by 3% from 2012 to 2013 among public companies, with the labour force increasing by 5% (3).

In contrast, job growth in pharma has not fared as well. In the US, for example, employment in the industry fell by 7.1% between 2001 and 2012 (1). This decline was partly due to the demands for outsourcing, resulting in some migration of clinical research professionals from pharmaceutical companies to CROs. It signals further recognition of the prominent role CROs now play in the healthcare landscape, compared to several years ago.

Today, the quality, experience and skill set of CRO project teams are largely considered on par with similar internal capacities at biopharma companies. This dynamic has resulted in increased movement of talent from sponsors to CROs, and vice versa. According to industry surveys, common reasons for a clinical research professional choosing to leave a sponsor to join a CRO include: career stability, in light of growing clinical outsourcing trends; the opportunity to work on numerous projects aligned with their therapeutic expertise; the chance to work on global projects; and the potential to accelerate career advancement (4).

In Demand

While CROs are experiencing solid overall growth in specific therapeutic units – such as oncology and those of the central nervous system – the positions of highest demand in the industry are currently CRAs and clinical project managers. Demand is evident as well for specialised experts – dictated accordingly as overall business grows, long-term projects advance, and additional core functions are outsourced to CROs. Besides clinical research, CROs typically look to fill positions in the following departments: biostatistics; business development; data management; medical affairs; safety and pharmacovigilance; medical writing; patient recruitment; quality assurance; regulatory; and site operations.

Despite the strong growth prospects, there are several inherent challenges for global CROs tasked with adding and maintaining the talent level needed to deliver optimal customer value. The competitive labour climates present in many global regions can make executing on that mandate difficult, and several countries are known for their tight labour markets and competitive hiring climates.

The mission of the life sciences industry can also work, in essence, as a double-edged sword when recruiting and retaining employees. The public health motivations of clinical researchers – helping to bring new medicines to the market – is an obvious advantage, in that those individuals are relatively specialised; however, the result can be limited external hiring pools. Hence, the design and implementation of internal talent management strategies that emphasise career progression in an organisation are critical. They may also help overcome documented fluctuations in staff turnover at CROs. According to an industry survey, in 2012, there was a 12.5% turnover rate among all CRO positions (5).

Though these hurdles are not unique to CROs, they spotlight the importance of having quality leadership and programmes in place to best maximise existing experience, and appropriately access and acquire new talent. Having a worldwide human resources (HR) presence and strategy is a key element to achieving this, particularly as many of the functional aspects of clinical research are now more globally integrated.

Relying on a standardised set of tools and processes is important, but so is the flexibility to create localised strategies to better resonate with specific cultures. Both approaches require organisations to carefully compete for talent in ways that are locally effective. Employee resourcing, for example, is of major importance for international research companies setting up regional operations in emerging markets where sensitivities to diverse cultural, societal and governmental influences are critical. Thus, for CROs, the ability to design differentiated HR and staff recruitment strategies can boost their chances of attracting desired personnel in a targeted region.

Name of the Game: Retain

The ability for CROs to keep stride with industry growth will come down to how adept they are in recruiting and, of equal importance, retaining talent. The use of technology, particularly social media, has proven to be a valuable tool in attracting top employees. A select number of CROs have introduced their own digital tools – leveraging platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social sourcing strategies – to allow current staff to more easily share job openings with their respective network of industry colleagues and friends. CROs also tend to house their own large databases on talent, and also have access to specialised online databases. In addition, internal recruitment teams today are more skilled and resource-equipped to conduct their own targeted campaigns – an outreach endeavour traditionally handled by executive search firms focusing on senior-level employees.

Retaining quality staff is a central area of concern at CROs. HR executives cite several important factors that increase the odds of holding on to top talent – these include opportunities for career growth and development; quality leadership and supervision; competitive pay; rewards and recognition; employee empowerment; and a meaningful and exciting work environment defined by clear values and goals. Communication and feedback on not only job performance, but also how an employee’s role fits into the company’s bigger picture, is another key factor in retaining talent.

Critical to all these areas is the presence of ongoing training, coaching and mentoring programmes, both on a broad level and specialised by function. Clinical research professionals can benefit from a wide range of development-oriented initiatives, from professional development (presentation and communication techniques, for example), to leadership or technical training, to training on a sponsor’s or project’s specific standard operating procedures.

Numerous Opportunities

Nevertheless, a certain level of employee attrition is part of the normal course of business. After all, there are a number of reasons – professional and personal – that an individual, no matter how committed to a role, may leave an organisation. But one thing appears certain: with the growth of clinical outsourcing projected to continue, career opportunities in the clinical research space are many. For CROs, their ability to attract, develop and retain quality talent will be a clear differentiating factor for success.


1. IBISWorld, Contract research organizations in the US: Market research report, 2014. Visit: contract-research-organizations.html
2. Biotechnology Industry Organization, Battelle/BIO state bioscience jobs, investments and innovation 2014, 23 June 2014. Visit: and-innovation-2014
3. EuropaBio, Facts about biotech in Europe, 2014. Visit:
4. Morunda, Employees are moving from pharmaceutical companies to CROs for growth and stability, 2013. Visit: employees-are-moving-from-pharmaceutical-companies-to-crosfor- growth-and-stability-2
5. Survey: CROs see rise in employee turnover rate, less retention bonuses, 27 March 2013. Visit: commercial-services/survey-cros-see-rise-in-employee-turnoverrate- less-retention-bonuses

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Jan Schreur is Senior Vice President, Human Resources at INC Research, a leading, global Phase 1-4 CRO. Prior to joining INC Research, he served as Vice President, Human Resources at Zoetis, the world’s largest animal health company. Jan also served as Vice President, Human Resources at Pfizer, where he supported the spin-off of Pfizer’s Animal Health business unit into Zoetis. A native of the Netherlands, he has significant global experience managing HR issues worldwide.
Jan Schreur
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