Shortages of clinical research personnel in the UK are now running at 57%, while efforts to recruit new staff are being frustrated by unrealistic expectations, salary inflation and high rates of attrition, a meeting heard last week.

The Institute of Clinical Research (ICR) formed a resourcing special interest group (SIG) in November 2005 to address the crisis in recruiting suitable candidates for clinical research positions. As a resourcing forum held on 10 October at the Institute’s new offices in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire indicated, this crisis has only deepened over the last two years.

The forum and ensuing discussions painted a grim picture of a market in which the depleted stock of qualified candidates is in such demand that, as Carol Parish, head of clinical research at Janssen Cilag, put it, “we will offer anything”. Resource restrictions and procurement processes in pharmaceutical companies are tightening the screws, while increasingly only contract research organisations (CROs) are prepared to take on and train up entry-level personnel – often to see them leave for a better-paid job six months later.

Poaching and head-hunting are rife, exacerbated by aggressive recruitment practices in some agencies that play to the ‘me-generation’ tendencies of new graduates, the forum was told. These candidates are reluctant to travel or handle paperwork, expect to be a clinical research associate (CRA) manager or project manager within12 months, are apt to leave for another job after 18 months, and prefer to operate as contractors on lucrative daily rates, fuelling resentment from internal staff in comparable positions who may work longer hours for more than 50% less pay.

Opportunities to fill vacant slots from abroad are complicated by tight government limitations on issuing HSMP (Highly Skilled Migrant Programme) visas as well as the reluctance of some pharmaceutical companies to take on foreign nationals, fearing potential difficulties with knowledge of UK legislation, cultural fit or communications in crucial areas such as key opinion leader development.

Intensity of demand

Data presented by Vincent Lody of the ICR Resourcing SIG fleshed out many of these observations. Most candidates for clinical research positions with more than two years’ experience were headhunted every day, he told the forum. As an illustration of the intensity of demand, there were just 58 active candidates (those with > two years’ experience who applied for 10 or more UK jobs in CROs, pharmaceutical companies and biotechs every month) for 314 CRA positions as of June 2007. By the same measure, there were 47 active candidates for 244 clinical project manager (CPM) jobs and 41 candidates for 318 regulatory affairs positions.

This was at a time when the UK clinical research sector was projected to grow by 27% over the next two years. Moreover, 15% of qualified candidates were leaving the industry, 16% were looking at roles outside the UK (one third of these in the US) and freelancing/contracting was increasing at a rate of 40%.

In salary terms, CRAs with up to two years’ experience were being paid an average of £20-28,000 per annum, rising to £28-35,000 p.a. for two-four years’ experience and £36-40,000+ for up to five years’ experience. CPMs could get £35-40,000 with up to one year’s experience, £40-50,000 for 1-2 two years’ experience and £50,000+ after two-four years. Even clinical trial administrators (CTAs) with two-three years’ experience were being paid £22-30,000 per annum.

Some delegates at the forum felt these estimates were too low. Ann Maloney of CSL Recruitment said the agency was now regularly placing project directors in CROs at salaries of £70,000 and over.

Action needed

There was a general consensus at the meeting that urgent action was needed to attract more suitably qualified candidates to clinical research (CR) and curb the spiral of wage inflation, high staff turnover and sharp practice against a backdrop of dwindling interest and skills in the sector. Suggestions ranged from more partnership and risk-sharing with the pharmaceutical industry to publicising CR careers among science graduates, sponsorship programmes, ‘gentleman’s agreements’ on recruitment ethics, salaries that recognised the cost of living in South East England, and ‘retention contracts’ for clinical research staff trained on the job.

Ann Maloney proposed setting up a clinical recruitment ‘quango’, incorporating representatives of ICR’s special interest group, industry and human resource professionals, and led by a full-time ‘career czar’. This position would be funded by companies and ICR subscriptions but independent of any one organisation. What was needed, she said, was a “credible clinical research-skilled ambassador”, not an administrator. As things stood, the ICR’s resourcing SIG had no real “muscle” to act for the industry.