under pressure to innovate, life sciences employers need to close skills gap during a transitional time.

Among leading employment sectors around the world, few are undergoing as much transformation as the life sciences industry. Not only is pharma and bio-pharma research constantly evolving – leading to a voracious need for traditional and new STEM skills – but demand for business-as-usual roles is also driving companies to broaden their search for engineers, data scientists and regulatory specialists. This is happening as the sector anticipates a huge push for products and services around the world due to population growth and aging demographics in the years ahead.

Add in the fact that the industry is undergoing rapid digitalization and it’s easy to see how the skills gap is becoming a greater concern among life sciences business leaders. As data emerges to be the linchpin to the sector’s future, many companies are trying to fulfill its digital strategy and model by building a more insight-savvy workforce. That means competing head to head with IT&C giants, some of which are now moving into the life sciences industry as they seek growth opportunities.

According to Deloitte, compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for health care spending across 60 countries is predicted to increase 5.4% during 2018 through 2022; it was 2.9% from 2013 to 2017. One factor for this accelerated growth is the rising life expectancy around the globe. The World Health Organization reported that in 2016 (the latest year for which it has complete data), the global average was 72 years, which was 5.5 years higher than in 2000 – the fastest increase since the 1960s. From this improvement, along with continued global population growth, the life sciences sector is enjoying some of its strongest growth ever.

The race to find new blockbuster drugs, the rapid growth of biopharmaceutical products, the rise of alternative treatments in gene therapy, a relentless stream of medtech are all driving higher spending, investing and hiring throughout the sector. With demand for new therapies and diagnostics unrelenting, many employers are significantly investing in their workforce and competencies, bidding up the value of experts in specialties such as oncology, diabetes, orthopedics, pain management and others.

At the same time, the industry is undergoing a highly transformative and challenging digital journey, which has proven difficult for many companies. In fact, an MIT Sloan Management Review/Deloitte survey in 2018 found that just 1 in 5 biopharm firms are digitally maturing. The ability to leverage real world data in its development cycle, the development of patient-specific treatments and the proliferation of IoT medical devices are ushering a new era of digital medicine. 

To meet the demands of this growing trend, companies are seeking to employ more data scientists, analytical experts, developers and other skilled workers it hasn’t historically needed in such large numbers. New digital demands, however, now bring those roles front and center of many companies’ business strategy. Moreover, their talent needs also put them in direct competition for the best candidates with Silicon Valley giants, who themselves are investing in life sciences and healthcare businesses.

The growing skills gap in the life sciences sector is clearly a concern for many industry executives. Randstad Sourceright’s 2019 Talent Trends survey of human capital and C-suite leaders found that 85% say talent scarcity is one of their biggest worries. The search for new treatments will require companies to seek skills in high demand today as well as new skills yet to be discovered.

One way in which companies in the sector are responding to their talent needs is to leverage more contingent labor. Shifting some roles from traditional work arrangements to flexible ones opens up access to resources. By considering candidates from both permanent and temporary talent pools for positions that in the past may have been filled only with an employee, life sciences companies now have a much larger pool to source from. Not only does this provide more business agility and cost efficiency, but the embrace of contingent talent also results in faster time to hire. These benefits have some of the largest companies in the sector to shift more permanent jobs to contingent status.

Attracting talent to join the industry, however, remains a challenge. While Randstad Employer Brand Research shows that workers in the sector are highly satisfied with being employed in their line of work, those outside of it are less knowledgeable and less aware of the value propositions offered by companies such as J&J, Roche, Pfizer and others. In part, this is due to the traditionally opaque work environment at these companies, which are regulated around the world. Also, many life sciences companies are behind in their efforts to create a positive candidate experience, which can turn away some prospective workers.

Additionally, the sector needs to improve its retention efforts. Randstad’s research shows that 30% of those working in the sector surveyed say they plan to change jobs in the next 12 months; 20% said they had already changed jobs in the previous year.  

Still, many of those working in the industry also find fulfillment in knowing their efforts serve a greater societal good: the improvement of people’s well-being. This is one value proposition and advantage that life sciences employers can boast about in their attraction strategies. But it alone is not enough to help companies secure the talent it needs to continue to innovate and grow in the years ahead.