With pharma changing rapidly and Brexit on the horizon, where is recruitment heading?
The UK pharmaceutical industry is reaching a critical point in terms of recruitment as a number of factors come into play – notably the NHS is changing, science is advancing and Brexit is on the horizon. Currently the industry employs around 70,000 people and generates approximately 250,000 jobs in related fields. But recruitment has always been something of a struggle for the industry – the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says nine in ten pharma companies have issues filling highly skilled roles. And now, with a mix of factors changing pharma’s job-scape and conspiring against the recruiter, this could be set to get worse.
According to Graham Hawthorn, managing director at CHASE, the pharma sales and marketing workforce has both reduced and changed shape in the past five years. “This is driven by a number of factors, of which there are three important ones: cost pressures within the NHS; increasing difficulty in accessing relevant NHS stakeholders; and reduction in the number of primary-care-driven brands being launched,” he says. “If we take the third point as an example, this is driven by new launch medicines increasingly being higher value, lower volume. This kind of drug requires a different sales model to a higher volume, lower value primary care product.”
Indeed, the rise of biologic drugs is a case in point, with many being specialist in nature. But now these highly complex and sophisticated drugs are leading to the first wave of biosimilars, and according to a report last year by NonStop Pharma, a specialist division of NonStop Recruitment, these biosimilars are posing a recruitment nightmare. On the one hand, the skill set is very specialised for biosimilars – across R&D and manufacturing, and in even in sales and marketing where communicating complex science is required. On the other hand, the market is growing so fast that there is a dearth of these experienced and adequately skilled candidates.
Of course, the shift away from primary care to specialist care, coupled with the increasing cost pressures on the NHS, brings other difficulties; namely the rise of the payer as market-access influencer and the burgeoning address book of NHS stakeholders the sales and marketing teams need to tap into. With these changes comes the need for a radically different skills set – one with customer service skills that can access and influence the right stakeholders, one that understands the complexities of the fragmented healthcare environment and the various roles within it, and one that can communicate a medicine’s value proposition (and its complex science), as well as having the knowledge and skills around multi-channel marketing and communication. Indeed, this has led to the rise of key account managers and NHS liaison managers, as well as medical science liaisons.
Everyone knows the issues key account managers went through in the early days as sales reps were rebadged as KAMs but without a skills upgrade. In many ways the industry has learnt the hard way from this and, for all intents and purposes, companies are coming out the other end with renewed vigour and the realisation that for KAM to work, the right people have to be in the role. There is also more focus on the new skills required of marketers, where engagement and influence using a multi-channel approach are increasingly needed. Furthermore, marketers also increasingly need the ability to analyse data to elucidate genuine insight for powerful campaigns based on value and outcomes.
But the changing landscape has placed pressure on employers, Hawthorn notes. Due to a combination of good people leaving the industry and companies reducing the number of strong, commercial graduates recruited, a talent gap in sales and marketing has opened up. However, Hawthorn adds, a positive trend of the past few years has been the return to hiring commercial graduates. “This will help bridge the talent gap in future years,” he says, adding: “Industry can also improve by being more open-minded about hiring quality people from different sectors or straight from university.” This is an important point when research last year from executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles found 71 percent of pharma country managers had no experience outside the pharma sector and 74 percent were promoted internally after spending almost 18 years in the same company.
But perhaps where the skills gap and recruitment struggle is most keenly being felt is in innovation. While there are thousands of job opportunities available in research and development and manufacturing – mainly driven by small and medium sized firms, and particularly in the regional R&D hubs of Oxfordshire, east Midlands and the North West, according to a report by Scantec – there is still the challenge of filling the gaps. Scantec notes that QC analytical chemists, formulation scientists, analytical method development chemists, quality assurance officers and organic chemists are particularly in demand. Real Life Sciences also came to a similar conclusion, after a survey found that 57 percent of European pharma companies struggling to drive innovation claimed their sluggish performance was a result of not having the right skills and people in place.
Indeed, in 2015, the ABPI and Office for Life Sciences both warned that a shortage of skilled professionals was threatening to undermine R&D of new medicines in the UK. The trade body, which had interviewed 59 organisations, pointed the finger at a low number of good quality UK candidates. The OLS believed there was a gap of around 24,000 fewer skilled workers, particularly in genomics and bioinformatics, compared with the US. At the time, the ABPI warned: “The increasing number of skills gaps need to be urgently addressed if the UK is to continue to deliver innovative medicines to patients.”
Now Brexit promises to be the next threat that could scupper efficient recruitment. While there have been several instances where British industry has recently been boosted – such as the announcements at the end of last year when MSD and Qiagen both said they were investing in the UK, creating hundreds of new job posts – there have also been warnings that Brexit will impact the pharma industry at the recruitment level. Not only would the positions of thousands of Europeans based in the UK be jeopardised post-Brexit but a ready source of pharma talent from the continent would suddenly be turned off.
In fact, DHR International says this is already being seen. Prior to Brexit, the executive search firm says around 40 percent of candidates for senior pharma roles in the UK were non-UK nationals. This figure has now fallen to 15 percent. DHR claims this is due to uncertainty surrounding the stability of positions once the UK leaves the EU, and the firm believes attracting talent will worsen after the Brexit leave date.
According to a recent article in the Telegraph on DHR’s findings, an AstraZeneca spokesman said: “Continuing uncertainty around Brexit is impacting recruitment for skilled roles and we anticipate that some international applicants may go elsewhere until they know more about their future employment and security for their families in the UK.” GlaxoSmithKline was also quoted as saying it was “critical” the industry had the ability to attract talent from the EU. Indeed, Sir John Bell’s August 2017 report on the UK life sciences sector recommended a migration system that would allow the recruitment and retention of workers from abroad for the benefit of the British pharmaceutical industry.
Moving forward, the industry will need to be more flexible and open-minded when it comes to recruitment. Several recruiters have urged the industry to explore talent from outside pharma to ensure there are the right blend of skills and learnings from other sectors to drive pharma’s evolution and boost its response rate to challenges. This is particularly crucial for board-level positions, where research has found that UK executive directors with non-pharma experience dropped from 40 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2015.
Certainly, the recruitment landscape in pharma is challenging, with more upheaval expected post-Brexit. But at the same time, there is a positive spin on the talent gap and challenges ahead, says Hawthorn – for new opportunities exist for the industry to do something different recruitment-wise and to reap the benefits.
Katrina Megget is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry