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Biotech’s Looming Talent Crisis: 5 Ways to Prepare for the Storm


Xconomy San Diego — 

Finding and keeping great talent has always been a limiting factor for building companies—and even more so in the life science industry, which requires highly specialized skills. As an executive recruiter focused solely on life sciences, I know firsthand the challenges of filling key executive roles, and I’m often the first to see signs of change in our industry.

Today, I fear we’re at the cusp of a full-blown talent crisis. While finding and keeping qualified leaders has always been a rate-limiting challenge, major demographic shifts are taking this scarcity to a whole new level.

Baby boomers soon will retire en masse, and the remaining talent pool—comprised of individuals from the Gen X and millennial generations—differ radically in their values and workplace expectations.

Meanwhile, a survey of the current labor market indicates high levels of discontent. More than half of American workers are actively seeking new positions, according to Gallup, and a growing number of employees are unafraid to leave their jobs. Some 3 million employees voluntarily left roles in August 2016, up from 2.1 million in August 2012. Another important finding from the survey: Only about a third of employees feel engaged in their work.

It’s essential for biotech companies to pay attention to these trends, and make proactive cultural changes that will ensure a robust and engaged workforce—and, quite frankly, will save them a lot of money. Talent turnover, particularly at the executive level, is estimated to cost twice the salary of that executive position.

The recession that led to major job losses in biotech a decade ago is now a distant memory. The industry is back in full force—and 2018 is off to a rocking start. We saw $2.8 billion of venture capital invested in biotech startups in the first quarter, already surpassing any year before 2014, according to Pitchbook. To sustain this growth, companies will need to work harder than ever to attract talent, as workforce demographics are quickly changing.

The enormous baby boomer generation has dominated the biotech workforce since its formative years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This generation, including individuals currently between the ages of 54 and 72, is known for its steady and loyal work—valuing 9-to-5 hours and showing loyalty to their company. But in a decade, nearly all boomers will be at or near their retirement age. Gen X and millennials will need to fill in the gap.

These successive generations, however, have substantially different values and expectations of their employer. For instance, Gen X (now between the ages of 38 and 53), and millennials (between 22 and 37) place a high value on flexibility, both in terms of where and when they work. Millennials, sometimes referred to as the “giving generation,” also are known to seek jobs that allow them to give back to society.

Companies that don’t provide the right environment for Gen X and millennials risk high turnover or talent shortages as employees are wooed by more enticing companies or industries. We can’t let this happen—we have medicines to create and diseases to conquer. Biotech leadership teams can position themselves for success by preparing for the big changes ahead. Here’s five ways to get started:

Start succession planning now. Generational shifts in the workplace mean it’s critical to mentor younger talent. Prioritize programs that pass knowledge and skills from older talent to the next generation of leaders. A happy byproduct: mentorships also help women, who cite mentorship as critical to their advancement, and minorities, who aspire to the C-suite but often don’t get the support they need.

Evaluate your corporate culture. Consider flexible hours, ability to work remotely, and performance-driven work, which are extremely attractive to potential hires. These changes may seem scary to implement, but I’ve seen firsthand the loyalty companies get from their employees for implementing such changes. Employees will walk on water for you. And the good news is everyone wants these changes—millennials have just been the first generation to have technology that made this a possibility.

Engage and attract new talent pools. The future workforce will include a greater share of women—who now receive the majority of doctorates in life sciences—underrepresented minorities, and age-diverse candidates (both older and younger). It’s critical to tap into these markets and keep these employees happy once they’re hired. I highly recommend employee training in unconscious bias to ensure you have a welcoming environment for all. Working with an executive recruiter who is tapped into new, qualified talent pools and can help you find the right people quickly and efficiently.

Think outside the benefits box. In addition to traditional retirement benefits, millennials are particularly concerned about paying for education—both their own and their children’s. Offer tuition reimbursement and college savings plan. Matching charitable gifts are also attractive to this generation.

Embrace your higher mission. Millennials, in particular, are drawn to companies that allow them to give back to society. They want their work to have meaning and purpose. What better industry than biotech to make this happen? To recruit and retain talent, biotech companies will be well served by emphasizing their patient impact and the role each person has in bringing new healthcare innovations to the market.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin making changes to your recruiting practices and company culture. How will you stand out from the crowd in the eyes of the talent you seek? And once you’ve hired promising employees, how will you make sure they remain engaged in their work?

Now’s the time to think about how you’ll attract the next generation of leaders to your company. We need the best and the brightest tackling the hardest diseases and finding the best solutions. Patients are counting on us.

Robin Toft is the president and CEO of Toft Group Executive Search. Over the course of her career in executive search, Ms. Toft has placed hundreds of executives, from director through C-level positions in biotech, pharmaceutical, diagnostic, medical device, and digital health companies. Follow @

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