Fight Your Own Demons to Find True Job Security

Times of turmoil can be beneficial to pharma professionals with a taste for growth, new challenges, and LinkedIn-style networking, says a savvy recruiter.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

Granted, these are tough times for workers in the pharmaceutical industry, only made worse by recent turmoil within the global economy. But pharma companies have been restructuring their workforces for years now, substracting and adding, and what we’re seeing lately may not be all that new. “I don’t believe more companies are laying off now than a few years ago,” says Megan Driscoll, President of PharmaLogics Recruiting (Braintree, Mass.), a firm that specializes in R&D and manufacturing employment in pharma and biopharma.

“Hiring freezes are much more prevalent,” Driscoll notes. “Everyone is taking a wait-and-see attitude” to see just how dire the economic situation is. 

But pharma and biopharma professionals cannot afford to wait and see, Driscoll advises. The truly networked and branded know this already, and are positioning themselves for any eventuality.

Those who feel secure may have another thing coming. Driscoll cautions those—such as the 42% of respondents to Pharmaceutical Manufacturings’ 2009 job and salary survey—whose “skills and performance speak for themselves” and do not have a clear professional branding strategy. “They need to change that mindset,” she says. “Most times, their perception of themselves is higher than others’ perceptions of them.”

Wanted: Less “R” and More “D”

The nature of the life sciences industry these days is that companies are highly focused on pipeline development and investing in late-phase candidates and commercialization, rather than in research on novel drug candidates. As a result, the job market favors those involved in development and scale-up, Driscoll says. This trend comes at the expense of pure researchers and early-stage professionals, whose work is being outsourced more and more.

What jobs are hot? “I commonly hear, ‘I’m hiring a tech transfer person because we have quality issues,’” Driscoll says. These people are often good communicators who break down silos and bridge gaps between groups within the same building, and especially across languages and continents. “There’s a need for people who can increase the level of communication between companies and their outsourcing partners,” she says.

In addition to tech transfer, project and clinical trial management, QA, QC, regulatory, validation, and analytics are all hot areas right now. “Analytics is really turning into its own field,” she says. Firms are developing their own teams of analytical experts who are being asked to work across teams and products.

Researchers and others whose jobs have been outsourced can take heart in the fact that the pendulum will eventually swing back in their direction, and that those jobs being outsourced are not necessarily “disappearing” overseas. They’re often going to nearby contract manufacturers or start-up companies that are hungry for qualified scientists with pharmaceutical backgrounds.

Contractors = Career Preservation

Scientists that have enjoyed the perks and budgets of working in R&D at Big Pharma companies tend to look down upon contract research and manufacturing outfits. “There’s a perception in industry, especially in research, that working for a contract researcher or contract manufacturer is not acceptable,” she says. That perception is changing and “is going to need to change” if good scientists are going to prolong their careers.

Driscoll counsels her clients to think seriously about offers from smaller firms, or from contractors. These jobs are career builders, she says. They offer workers the chance to develop their expertise in a number of different skill areas, on multiple different projects, usually with many varied drug molecules. “It’s a very freeing thing for people to move from a big to small pharma company,” she says. This typically holds true for those moving from traditional pharma to biopharma, since the work is of a different nature and the companies tend to be smaller and leaner.

Driscoll tells the tale of one of her unemployed but highly qualified clients who turned down a job at a small, boutique firm for fear that it wasn’t a good long-term move. Six months later, he is still unemployed and getting a bit desperate.

“Big Pharma candidates are often very much one-track people—they excel in one thing,” she continues. “Candidates who’ve worked for contract organizations have a breadth of skills they might not have gotten in a larger environment.”

Driscoll also says that the perception that Big Pharma companies are somehow more stable and loyal is misguided as well. “There is the perception that you work for a big firm and you have job security,” she says. “Ultimately, the loyalty only goes in one direction,” as recent layoffs in the tens of thousands at manufacturers like Pfizer, GSK, and Merck prove.

Job security has nothing to do with whether you work for a big company or small, branded, generic, or contract firm. “It has to do with your own relevance,” she says. Interestingly enough, some of the most successful entrepreneurs that Driscoll has seen in the industry are those that were laid off and forced to adapt. This includes the over-40 set. “These are people that probably never would have left a Pfizer or other company, and tend to be very creative people with a lot yet to give.”

R U LinkedIn?

One of the good things about a long tenure in Big Pharma is that you develop a lot of professional contacts. Whether you develop those contacts and milk them when you really need them is another matter, says Driscoll.

One of the best networking tools around is LinkedIn, which has been especially popular in the biotech industry. “I have been a big proponent of LinkedIn,” Driscoll says. “Whenever I go to speak to job candidates, I always talk about it. LinkedIn is a way to stay connected with people, even after their jobs and addresses change,” she says. It’s also a great way to reconnect with colleagues from the past that you may have lost touch with.

But are LinkedIn connections legit? Driscoll admits that Web 2.0-style job references and connections lack the trust and credibility of more traditional contacts. But this, too, shall pass as people build substantial networks and find quality jobs via LinkedIn. Again, it’s the over-40 crowd that needs a reality adjustment. Driscoll has over 1,000 LinkedIn friends, and finds value in numbers. “You don’t recognize the power of [being connected to so many people] until you need a job and have to rely upon them,” she says.

Love the One You’re With?

A lot of people shopping around are still employed, Driscoll notes. And one of the irony of the job market is that if you have a job, it’s easier to find a new job. You’re much more marketable.

For those employed but dissatisfied, Driscoll says the job search should begin close to home, with the company they’re with. The most frequent complaints that she hears from workers is that they don’t like their supervisors and have limited growth opportunities. Both of these predicaments can be overcome. Most disgruntled employees have never spoken to their bosses or human resources representatives about the possibility of an internal move. “Complete a job search within your own firm first,” she says.

For those unemployed or willing to bite the hand that currently feeds them, Driscoll recommends exhausting ones own professional contacts first, then turning to recruiters. The third option should be Internet-based job sites such as Monster.com and Pharmaceutical Manufacturing’s own job portal. This last option, however, has become more difficult to exploit as human resources departments themselves have been downsized (a cruel twist of fate) and their skeleton staffs have little time to cull through the thousands of resumes posted for each listing.

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