How to Hire and Retain Talent in the Biotech Industry

December 14, 2020 - 7 minutes

Hiring is a big challenge for biotech companies; life sciences recruitment experts share their strategies for attracting and retaining talent in the biotech industry. 

The big obstacle for life sciences recruiters is that companies in this industry generally require highly qualified candidates with very specific skills. 

“As every company is very specialized in what they do, you don’t have a large scope of profiles you can consider,” says Pierre Verchere, a recruiter specialized in life sciences at the firm Approach People Recruitment. 

To make matters worse, people with the right qualifications will typically already be employed. “It’s an industry where if someone is an expert in what they do, they will always have opportunities,” Verchere explains. 

“You don’t look at the market to find the unemployed people to fill positions. Usually people are already employed, so they have to resign and move from one company to another. They’re not always looking actively.”

Talent can be essential to the success of a company in the biotech industry, helping sustain its growth and achieve its goals. In order to access the right talent, biotech companies need to devise a recruitment strategy that fits their size and particular needs.

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Finding the right candidate

The recruitment strategy of a biotech company will typically depend on its size and growth stage. Especially at the early stages of development, recruitment can be critical. 

“We are competing with big companies on the best profiles, so we need to be attractive on other things than the usual packages by offering an enthusiastic vision of our future impact on the world, an agile environment open to initiative, and the opportunity for them to grow along with the company,” says Marie Catoire, who manages recruitment at the French cell therapy startup TreeFrog Therapeutics. 

TreeFrog Therapeutics was founded in 2019; within two years, the company has grown from two employees to over 30, and it plans to continue this growth rate for the next three years. 

“Our whole recruitment strategy derives from our business plan,” Catoire explains. “The sourcing process depends on each profile. We engage in headhunting for very specific and experimented profiles, such as field application specialists or top executives. For researchers and engineers, we activate our network, through LinkedIn or alumni networks.”

According to Catoire, something really important is to look for candidates with the right mindset to work in the biotech industry. “Of course, we look for specific skills and a potential for growth in terms of expertise. But adhesion to our values and vision is key. We look for candidates that have technical capacities to implement their ideas quickly, to maintain a trial-and-error culture, and that feel committed to our vision,” she added.

“Actually, our mindset is one of the main reasons attracting candidates. We respect big pharma’s culture and organization. But we believe that our fun and bold spirit is critical to remain innovative.”

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As biotech companies grow, so do their recruitment challenges. That’s the case of Galapagos; with over 1,000 employees, it’s one of the biggest biotech companies in Europe.

“The recruitment challenge has evolved because the number of people to recruit has increased substantially,” says Marie Vankerckhoven, Head of International Talent Acquisition at Galapagos. As of 2020, the company has had to fill 450 positions and received over 3,000 applications per month. 

“We have therefore invested in a fully operational internal talent acquisition team to attract, assess and recruit our new employees. Our talent acquisition specialists and talent sourcers are dedicated to a specific area or market and therefore really understand the labor market and what our business needs,” Vankerckhoven explains.

“We have evolved from an agency recruitment approach to a fully insourced talent acquisition activity. Due to this evolution, we notice shorter lead times, higher quality of candidates, and increased employer brand awareness.”

When searching for talent, Vankerckhoven gives great importance to looking for people with the right mindset. “Next to the specific job-related knowledge or experience, we are looking for true ‘make it happeners’; People that are not afraid to go the extra mile and walk unknown paths. People who dare and care. People who are not afraid to build from scratch. We need people who are down to earth, agile, and not hierarchical,” she explains.  

“We assess people on this mindset and behavior in true competency-based interviews, business cases, role playing, and personality questionnaires.”

For the most challenging positions, big companies also work with specialized recruiters. “If they can’t find the right profile, they ask us to do it,” says Verchere. “Sometimes you are working on positions for which you know that there are only 12 people in Europe that could be a good match. So you have to know where to find them; it’s a lot of networking and knowledge of the markets.”

Retaining talent for the long haul

In the biotech industry, retaining talent is as important as recruitment. However experienced, newcomers face a steep learning curve when getting familiar with the specific methods and processes of a biotech company. 

The main driver for employees in the life sciences to switch jobs is finding new challenges. “Most of the time we work with very curious people. Moving from a company to another is a challenge; it’s learning new things,” says Verchere.

“It’s why all the companies put in place development programs and talent pools. They always try to do the best to make sure employees have objectives and that they can have career growth opportunities internally. If you don’t do that, people in that sector can easily find something else.”

Life sciences companies that do not offer career development opportunities tend to have a big turnover, with people moving away after three to four years. In contrast, those that do offer them will typically see their employees stay for eight to ten years. 

“Besides job mobility motivated by salary or location, most candidates communicate their need to be aligned with the vision of the company they work for, and understand their contribution,” Catoire confirmed.

According to Vankerckhoven, people working in the life sciences industry generally prefer to work for new brands rather than established ones. “We see a shift with talent moving away from big pharma to smaller biotech. They enjoy the shorter decision lines and the more creative and innovative mindset.”

Navigating an evolving job market

A key challenge to recruitment in the biotech industry is that the job market is constantly evolving. “It’s a fast-moving environment,” says Verchere. “Two years ago, you may have had some specific profiles in the market, but as technology evolved candidates also had to evolve and develop new skills.”

In addition, the number of qualified candidates for life sciences positions has historically been limited. “The number of people graduating with scientific degrees is increasing versus 10 years ago,  but it is still too low compared to the number of job openings in life sciences,” said Vankerckhoven. “The gap is still substantial.”

A particular challenge within the European life sciences is to get candidates to relocate for a new position. This is why locating a company in one of Europe’s life sciences hubs — Basel, Munich, and Ghent among others — can be essential to attract candidates. 

“In comparison with the US, in Europe there are more people who give more importance to private life than professional development,” Verchere explains. “American recruiters don’t often understand why someone based in Paris doesn’t want to move to London… It’s always a good idea to establish your facilities and activities near big hubs of expertise so you can recruit people from the vicinity.”

However, Vankerckhoven believes this situation is starting to change — at least with the youngest generations of workers. “We have noticed that a lot of young people have a global mindset and attitude, which has allowed us to broaden our talent pool.”

“We do see a shift from the ‘post and pray’ recruitment approach we had to adopt some years ago, to a more strategic, active sourcing approach to talent acquisition. Candidates are now used to being approached through LinkedIn and Xing, or via their professional network.”

Going forward, especially during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more of the recruitment process will be happening online. Those employers who embrace and adopt digital recruitment strategies will be able to take full advantage of this shift and keep up with a rapidly evolving and global job market. 

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