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Tech Recruiting and Retention Challenges in Life Sciences

Sun Tzu (Demo)

Insight by: Steve Martin

The competition for talent in life sciences, from hiring through retention, has arguably never been fiercer, and at the even narrower intersection of IT talent and life sciences, it has been transformed into a veritable battlefield.  While the pandemic is often associated with all things horrible related to the current US and global economic conditions and employment challenges, the recent struggles in attracting IT talent can’t be blamed squarely on COVID.  Yes, we can concede that the virus threw an over-sized bucket of gasoline on the fire, however, the fire was lit, and has been burning for, several years prior to the pandemic.

The hiring and retention challenges in the life sciences technology space are subjected to many of the same hurdles found in other industries, among them, the rapid pace of change in the general technology landscape (e.g., cloud native platforms, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, quantum computing, blockchain), evaporation of the geographic barriers to employment spawned by the “new norm” of remote and virtual hybrid work models, and nearly unprecedented low unemployment rates among IT workers.  Layer on top of those cross-industry challenges, the hyper-focus on developing and/or utilizing life sciences centric technologies such as on-demand healthcare, digital therapeutics, computational biology, and bioinformatics, and the hiring challenges quickly shift from being difficult to downright daunting.

So, what’s the solution?  To start with, companies can’t expect to crack the code following their traditional HR “hire to retire” playbooks, i.e., posting functional job descriptions, scanning resumes, performing interviews, researching pay scales, hiring, and placing professionals on a linear one-size-fits all career path.  In the words of Albert Einstein, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

In their recent article, Five Ways That Life Science Companies can Build Tech Talent, the authors from McKinsey & Co. highlight a seemingly obvious, but nevertheless, critical point, namely, “the competition for tech talent is industry—and increasingly, location—agnostic. While for many critical roles, life science organizations compete only with one another, every industry is fishing in the same pool for tech talent.”  Although we, in the life sciences space, may believe we’re special by focusing on finding cures for life-threatening diseases, improving the quality of life, and extending life expectancy (versus, let’s say, building the next version of TikTok or designing and manufacturing drones to film our children’s weekend soccer games), technology professionals, particularly Millennial’s and Generation Z’ers, as related to their careers, may not necessarily place a premium on saving or extending lives…at least not those of others.  Don’t get this author wrong; it’s not that these professionals are heartless and self-absorbed, it’s just that their underlying criteria for employment relate to considerations other than the intrinsic social or human value embraced by life sciences or health-care related organizations.  In its article 15 Essential Factors Tech Professionals Look For In a Long-Term Job, the Forbes Technology Council lists several critical considerations given by technology professionals seeking long term opportunities, chief among them (in addition to compensation), the ability to contribute to their company’s success, being challenged by their work, gaining exposure to continuous learning opportunities, experiencing alignment of their values with the company’s vision (yes, the next version of TikTok can still be a “vision”) and being part of a strong engineering culture.  While all of these considerations (as well as the other factors outlined in the article) can be fostered in the life sciences industry, the industry certainly does not garner any special consideration here, let alone, have a corner on the market – i.e., we can’t rest on our “saving lives” laurels alone.

In the McKinsey article cited earlier, the authors set forth five “strategies” that underscore what life sciences companies can do to attract and retain IT talent.  While the strategies may not be groundbreaking (to be sure, the more progressive life science companies have been using at least a subset of these strategies for some time now), the authors do a credible job of presenting the mandate for change with respect to how companies need to evolve, and in some cases, overhaul their traditional employment practices.  A couple of these strategies are particularly on-point and square with the criteria outlined in the Forbes article.  For example, the McKinsey authors call for life sciences companies to establish a digitally focused value proposition that they can stand behind in practice, noting “life science organizations, along with emphasizing their commitment to patient outcomes, have largely focused their value proposition on employees in R&D and commercialization—that is, those who traditionally returned the greatest benefit to the business. However, [we] believe that to compete successfully for tech workers, life science organizations can do better with a digital-specific EVP.”   They also discuss the need for growth oriented career ladders, pointing out that not all employees define success in terms of being promoted to leadership roles, arguing that “few life science organizations today support advancement in seniority, accountability, and salary for those who would rather grow their technical skills than pursue management positions.

While there are a plethora of other strategies and considerations beyond those highlighted in the articles that should be considered (e.g., cross-training employees from other [non-IT] parts of the organization, hiring and training workers with non-traditional backgrounds, building world-class mentoring programs and tracking / rewarding success, training managers and holding them accountable for employee retention), and despite neither of the articles purporting to completely solve the entire hiring/retention conundrum, each provides strong considerations for rethinking the HR model in this challenging environment.  First movers will heed one of the many theories espoused by Sun Tzu, “in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”