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Could robots solve the pharma talent crisis?

Published on 31/05/17 at 10:42am

Unpredictability in the industry and beyond is rife, but talent acquisition remains a key issue for Pharma and Life Sciences. Jim Sykes dives into the topic to present a range of creative solutions to this ever-present challenge.

The next year holds many uncertainties for the pharmaceutical field. Globally the two prevailing keywords prevalent in the news are Brexit and Trump, both of which are unpredictable in their very nature. Within this specialist sector, though, there’s much more occurring that makes general strategy development and planning increasingly tricky.

M&A activity in pharma has become more prolific of late, with bigger and higher profile acquisitions taking place – just look back at Bayer-Monsanto, arguably the largest deal of 2016 – and such activity looks set to continue throughout the coming year. Movement in the R&D field has also driven demand in the sector, from rapid advances in certain therapeutic areas through unpredictable circumstances such as outbreaks of zika, ebola and dengue.

However, amongst all of this uncertainty, there is one thing we can definitely say: the war for talent wages on. But why and, perhaps more importantly, how can firms ensure they have the resources they need to thrive in what will only become a more volatile environment in the very near future?

The talent crisis

In the UK alone, the pharmaceutical industry employs around 67,000 people and generates approximately 250,000 jobs in related fields. However, the number of students leaving education ready and willing to enter employment in the sector falls well below this demand. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that nine in ten pharmaceutical companies were struggling to recruit for highly skilled roles, according to a report from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (APBI).

The causes of this shortfall of talent are multiple. Aside from a lack of individuals choosing this career option during education (that’s a whole other piece on its own), the diminishing investment companies are able to make in to attracting graduates and experienced hires has exacerbated the challenge.  Arguably, pharma firms have historically had extravagant budgets which enabled greater investment in sourcing the best skills from across the globe. However, this is no longer the case, making it much more difficult to attract the requisite professionals. This situation could potentially be made more challenging in the UK following the triggering of Article 50, particularly given that 16% of the industry’s funding comes from the EU.

There has also been a heavy reliance on sourcing talent from across borders as the pool of experienced professionals continues to diminish. This in itself is a difficult task which could also have an impact on budgets, given the need to often relocate individuals and their families.  Added to this, the relative ‘open-border’ approach taken by many pharma firms increases the competition for the most in-demand skills, again worsening the war for talent.

People planning in an unpredictable climate

With this background in mind, it’s understandable that so many pharmaceutical firms struggle to fill in-demand specialist roles in a timely manner. Strategic workforce planning, the continual process used to align the needs and priorities of the organisation with those of its workforce, is also naturally a daunting task, but it’s not an impossible one. The key barrier to overcome, in my view, is the reluctance to adopt innovative new tools that can be immensely useful.

Pharma is no newcomer in terms of embracing innovative new technologies, yet I would argue that it is often behind the curve when it comes to utilising new HR technologies for internal purposes, especially talent identification, talent engagement, talent (employee) management and strategic workforce planning.

From a talent sourcing perspective, the difficult job of identifying the right person, with the right skills, in the right location and at the right time (i.e. when they are considering a move, but before someone else snaps them up), can be simplified by the use of digital tools. Predictive analytics, for example, can remove much of the burden of searching for candidates: the research required, the effort of conducting multiple searches and ultimately much of the cost, effectively providing recruiters or Hiring Managers with a digitally created long list of suitable talent to assess.

By means of explanation, predictive analytics in this context consist of a series of complex algorithms designed to monitor and analyse an individual’s online activity – including the nature and frequency of updates – in order to pre-empt when they are open to a new job opportunity. As a result, pharma firms can identify individuals in specific locations, with defined areas of specialisms, who are most likely to be ready to engage with a new employer. This means better access to talent, reduced waste in the hiring process and an improved experience for candidates and Hiring Managers.

Do these tools give you a competitive advantage?  Yes, in the short-term, particularly given how few pharma firms are currently utilising these technologies.  In the medium to long-term though, such tools mean that your competitors will likely be targeting your own employees more effectively in an attempt to encourage them to jump ship as soon as it’s identified that they are potentially open to new opportunities. Brave HR practitioners may therefore want to utilise these technologies to monitor their own workforces in order to understand the susceptibility to external job offers (which can be done anonymously to avoid identifying specific employees). The benefit of this approach is that you can then tailor employee engagement strategies in order to better retain your existing talent while, if required, targeting your talent acquisition teams to proactively pipeline suitable external candidates to cover any expected attrition. In essence, these predictive analytics provide firms with a double-edged sword to help them fight for both external talent and existing staff.

Making the most of connections

While there may be some who could argue that such technological use would mean moving beyond the comfort zone of some resourcing teams in the industry, pharma has in recent times developed partnerships which can be hugely beneficial. Perhaps the most important example is the increased collaborations within the digital sector.

Last year alone saw multiple partnerships develop, with the likes of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, forging relationships with GSK and Sanofi. And of course we cannot forget Zuckerberg’s Health Initiative. These collaborations are fantastic in terms of using tech for R&D developments and much more, but they should also be maximised for the benefit of the firm’s internal strategies as well.

This includes (but is by no means limited to) the acceptance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) across multiple disciplines within the business. These new developments have certainly become a hot topic of late and according to Google, RPA trending statistics alone have more than doubled since mid-2013. While many of the aforementioned partnerships have included some form of RPA to reduce administrative burdens on R&D projects or clinical drug trials, they can also have the same cost and time savings on people processes. By utilising these automation tools, many human resources administration tasks can be removed from the HR and resourcing teams, freeing up their time to do what they do best: engage with the firm’s people and candidate pools.

I certainly sympathise with those in the pharma field when it comes to formulating talent strategies – I can attest to the fact that it is no mean feat. However, the industry presents vast opportunities for growth, development and profitability for those willing to embrace and incorporate technology (including ‘robots’) into all aspects of our business.

Jim Sykes is Sector Managing Director (Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences) at global talent acquisition and management firm, Alexander Mann Solutions.

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