From AAPS 2012: Megan Driscoll on Winning the War for Top Pharma Talent


By Agnes Shanley

Oct 18, 2012

At the AAPS annual conference in Chicago this week, recruiter Megan Driscoll, founder and principal of Pharmalogics, led a discussion group on the job market for scientists and other senior life sciences professionals. 

The program, which featured seasoned HR professional panelists Britt Tasker with Perrigo, Angela Blomquist, with Upsher Smith, and Sara Gustafson withVertex Pharma, was aimed at pharmaceutical HR professionals.  Nevertheless, it offered great insight for any pharmaceutical industry professional who is contemplating a career change.

For starters, Driscoll said, “The jobs are coming back.”  She reports seeing some 80 new openings a week at her company, which has grown from a four-person operation a few years ago to 50 people today.

One of her main goals, she says, is to eliminate bad hires.  Driscoll quoted Harris Interactive statistics saying that over 68% of U.S. businesses had made hiring mistakes last year that they wished they could take back, while 41% said that each had cost them between $25,000 to $50,000.

“One bad seed ruins it,” she said, citing the example of the brilliant scientist who can’t work well with others.  “We get a lot of replacement work,” she added.

The key to avoiding this problem is collaborative hiring, Driscoll said. “You need to be in a consistent process of thinking about hiring and where you’re going next.”  She asked the audience the following rhetorical questions (which job applicants can also ponder for each new opportunity):

What is your hiring strategy?

How do you develop a quality candidate pool?

How do you attract top talent?

What is your screening process like?

Another important factor for hiring managers to consider, Driscoll said, is the job applicant experience.  Here, she cited Vertex as an example. “They make every candidate feel as if they’ve rolled out the red carpet for them.”

Developing a hiring strategy should be a crossfunctional effort, with different groups involved, including compensation specialists.  “All too often,” Driscoll said, “hiring managers throw out a job order, then find that they cannot afford the person they need.  At that point, they discover that they'll have to reapprove the new hire for the following year.”

It is critical to involve key stakeholders to gain a better understanding of what they need from the new hire.  These groups need to give their suggestions as early as possible in the process.

The first step, she said, is to look internally.  “Find a candidate in your group and do succession planning before you need to.” 

Often, she said, existing employee candidates feel they’ve hit a ceiling, in that they don’t like the person they work for and cannot grow.

If you interview someone internally who doesn’t get the position, explain why they weren’t deemed ready.  “If you pass over someone without telling them why,” Driscoll said, “you are guaranteeing that they will want to leave your company.”

She also offered job posting suggestions for HR directors, for instance, suggesting that they use local boards like MassBio for specific positions where relocation is not involved.

She also suggested that HR departments be aware of the fact that nine out of 10 candidates surveyed last year said they weren’t actively pursuing a new job but were “interested in exploring opportunities.” 

Her advice to HR was also useful to applicants.  “Watch out for generalist recruiters,” she warned.  For instance, she recalled an experienced recruiter at a major biotech company who didn’t know that chromatography and HPLC referred to the same thing, even though she had been at the company for 10 years. “They may be good at placing people, but they may not understand all the technical pieces to what you’re looking for.”

She also advised HR professionals on how to use LinkedIn, and how to craft an “elevator speech” describing the company’s focus and opportunities.  (Job seekers, take note.)

Getting involved in social media is critical, she said.  “Gone are the days of sitting at the PC with a wired mouse.  Now candidates are working on their tablets browsing and following companies.

LinkedIn profile building is critical, Driscoll said, contrasting a strong and weak profile, each for a senior-level management professional.  The profile should capture what is in the resume and include important key words,” she said.

Companies need to sell candidates on their companies throughout the process, not just at the end, and having a crossfunctional approach can help ensure that everyone is giving the same message.

Behavioral interviewing is becoming much more important in selecting the right candidate, and those on both side of the interview need to learn how to do this more effectively, panelists agreed.

The panel discussion suggested that hiring conditions are improving and that for the right individuals, life science recruiting is becoming a "seller's market." 

We will be publishing more on this topic, and looking into the changing job market in an extensive report early next year.