Talent Leadership

Recruiting in life sciences in 2023

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

May 17, 2023

No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re a talent acquisition (TA) professional, you’ve experienced massive changes and disruption over the past few years. This is a given. But we wanted to do a deeper dive to get a better sense of the specific challenges and opportunities TA professionals in different industries—financial services, manufacturing, and now life sciences— are facing. What are their top concerns and priorities? How are they turning to technology to reach their goals? 

For this post on life sciences, we spoke with several TA pros to identify the top trends and themes in this industry. A big thank you to everyone who participated and shared their expertise, including the Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company and the VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company.

Let’s take a high-level look at the trends that are defining recruiting in life sciences:

  • There are more professionals working in life sciences research in the United States than ever. In fact, the number of researchers working in life sciences grew by a startling 79% from 2001 to 2021.

  • There are also a record number of people graduating with life sciences expertise—biological and biomedical sciences degrees and certificates have increased 103% over the past 15 years. 

  • The life sciences industry employs a higher percentage of skilled workers than other industries, heightening the competition for talent.

  • Turnover has the potential to be incredibly disruptive—81% of industry professionals say they’re ready to make a move. 

  • While not unique to life sciences employers, there’s a growing urgency to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). In a recent survey, 73% of life sciences professionals felt that racial minorities were underrepresented at the most senior levels, while 63% said they felt women were underrepresented at the top. 

Ready to dive into our findings and hear what the TA professionals had to say? You’ll find detailed descriptions of their top challenges, opportunities, and software requirements below.

What is unique about recruiting in life sciences?

To put it simply: Hiring for life sciences is tricky! Life sciences employers have a broad range of needs when it comes to talent. They require highly-specialized talent with graduate degrees but also need retail and plant workers who can work out of specific locations. While the talent pipeline looks solid, the competition for talent is high and turnover is a major concern. 

Compared to other industries, life sciences employs a greater percentage of high-skilled workers. In 2020, nearly half (47%) of life science industry jobs were considered high-skilled occupations—significantly more than the 27% average across all other industries. 

The range of skills and expertise needed within life sciences is noteworthy: from highly-trained scientists doing research and development, to regulatory affairs experts, to manufacturers in plants making medical devices, to administrative roles like HR and finance in the head office. Some companies also have a retail arm, which involves high-volume, seasonal hiring and competing against other retail employers. 

“For me, the R&D side is interesting because we're looking for such a specific type of talent— sometimes there are only one or two people in the market. It operates more as executive search than as high-volume recruiting.”  

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

The variety of roles at life sciences companies means the approach to recruiting can never be one-size-fits-all. University recruiting, for example, can look very different depending on the type of role. When employers are looking for MDs, they tend to build relationships with Ivy League medical schools and their alumni networks. But for sourcing shift workers at plants, holding events at small-town technical colleges is likely to be much more effective.  

“For more niche recruitment like MDs, we really tapped into alumni networks, university networks. We tended to go to big-name schools like Columbia and Harvard to get the word out. It wasn't exactly on-campus recruitment; it was more through their alumni networks, through referrals. We put a big push on referral campaigns. And because we had brilliant alumni from top schools, there tended to be a lot of traffic coming that way.” 

Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

At first glance, the life sciences talent pipeline looks promising, with a record number of people graduating college with life sciences expertise. In the US, for example, graduates in biological and biomedical sciences totaled more than 163,000 in 2020—a record number, and double the number from just 15 years ago.

Similarly, biopharma and life science employers have been increasing headcount over the past few years. A survey of industry employers conducted by BioSpace found that 78% of biopharma employers expected their number of open roles to increase in 2022. This was a jump from 68% in 2020 and 65% in 2021.

Yet these positive trends don’t tell the whole story—turnover is high and finding talent continues to be a significant challenge for employers. An overwhelming majority of the biopharma and life sciences workforce is looking to make a move—a whopping 81% of industry professionals are seeking a new position

And life, physical, and social sciences had a 0.6% unemployment rate in 2022—the second-lowest unemployment rate of all US occupations—signaling the lack of readily available talent and the difficulty of filling open roles.

Challenges of recruiting in the life sciences industry

The challenges of recruiting in life sciences include competition for highly-skilled talent, location-based recruiting in a world that wants remote work, non-integrated tech stacks, lack of access to data, and growing concerns over diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). 

Competition for highly-skilled talent in a small pond

With the highly-specialized nature of life sciences roles, TA professionals have a limited pool of talent available. Staying competitive means developing highly-detailed market intelligence about who’s leading different areas in each company, as well as up-and-coming leaders who might be able (and willing) to move into a leadership position at another company. 

“It's a small world, especially in biotech and biopharma. You know the players you want to go after and the players you don't want to go after. If we're looking at a specific therapeutic area, who are the renowned commercial leaders? Who are the top leaders in that space from a company standpoint? And then who's leading those functions?” 

– Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

Location-based recruiting in a world of talent that wants remote work

Location is a major sticking point in life sciences, with workers wanting or expecting flexibility but employers not always willing to provide it. Some roles—like manufacturing and retail—simply don’t have remote work options. But there’s more potential for flexibility with other life sciences roles, like those in research or head office functions. In response, some life sciences employers have tried to walk the line, allowing some remote work but requiring employees onsite for a set number of days each week. The lack of clarity can be off-putting to workers who don’t want to accept an offer with certain expectations and find that their working conditions dramatically change in six months.

“The challenge now is remote vs. non-remote. The biggest reason people turned down offers was location; nobody wanted to move to where we had offices or plants.”

– Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

Non-integrated tech stacks leads to a lack of access to data

In an industry like life sciences where turnover is high, it’s important to have clean data in your HRIS so you can understand what’s happening with your talent—both before and after they join your company. But many life sciences employers have disparate tech stacks that don’t talk to each other, which means it’s hard to get a clear picture of where and why they’re losing talent—and how to remedy the situation. 

“When we were going through systems integration, half the time the systems wouldn't talk to each other, so you couldn't connect the dots. You couldn't tell a story of what was driving turnover. Once we got an integrated HRIS system, some of those insights started to become more clear.” 

Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

“Cost per hire is very manual right now and very difficult to get to. I wish there was a more automated way of tracking it instead of our procurement team and HR team trying to compile a dashboard for me.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Pressure to prioritize DE&I

DE&I is a concern for both life sciences employees and employers. In a 2021 survey of life sciences professionals, 63% of respondents said they think women are underrepresented and 73% think cultural or ethnic groups are underrepresented at the most senior levels of their organizations. Just under a third of respondents said that their organizations have specific programs in place to encourage a more culturally/ethnically diverse workforce. As a growing number of candidates are looking to join organizations that prioritize DE&I, employers will feel increasing pressure to make progress on their DE&I goals. 

Opportunities in recruiting for life sciences organizations

Many of the challenges we explored in the previous section—the limited talent pool, lack of access to data, and increased interest in DE&I—can also be considered areas of opportunity. Life sciences TA professionals are taking inspiration from other sources, like hiring maturity models and market research, to better understand their employer brand. 

Data-driven recruiting… and turning data into insights

Life sciences TA teams recognize the power of using data to inform their recruiting decisions and activities. Some of their top concerns include being able to measure cost per hire, time to fill, agency spend, and internal mobility. Data that provides a better sense of the current market and can help TA professionals make predictions is also high on their wishlist. 

“Data I would want to see is trends in the marketplace—things that might be a bit more predictive of where the talent marketplace is going. If you're looking for data scientists or marketers, what does that market look like right now? How does it tell a story relative to where you were a year ago or where you think you're going?”  

– Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

But not all teams are defining metrics in the same way or are able to access the same dashboards, so there’s an opportunity to get everyone on the same page when it comes to data. This is especially important for getting a holistic picture of what’s happening with talent inside an organization—recruiting is one piece of a much larger puzzle.

“We're moving towards more of a data-driven culture. We want to make sure that everything we do relies more on data-led decision-making than on gut feel. There's some resistance, but we're getting there. And recruiting data can’t stand alone; it has to be tied to human capital management data. Recruiting has to be based on workforce planning. It has to be a holistic story versus just the recruiting piece.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Defining—and making progress on—DE&I goals

It’s not just candidates who care about DE&I. TA professionals are also aware of the importance of creating a more equitable experience, especially when it comes to their talent pipelines and interviews. 

“We’re trying to understand how people are moving through the funnel and if we have representation within our recruiting funnel. We also want to have a diverse interview panel, so when candidates come in for interviews, we’re fully representing the company.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

When it comes to recruiting diverse talent, life sciences employers are looking across several aspects of identity, including race/ethnicity, veteran status, and disabilities. 

“We would have a focus on diversity recruitment for veterans or disabled candidates as well as a big focus on historically Black colleges and universities, so there would be specific events going on throughout the year.” 

– Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

However, one challenge multinational employers face is aligning on a consistent definition of DE&I since it can vary substantially by country. 

“We're doing a lot of work on streamlining our definition of DE&I, because when you go outside of the US, DE&I means different things to different people. Instead of trying to recreate it internally, we’re trying to find out externally how people define it in every country.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Availability of technical (and other) talent on the market

While tech companies have been experiencing layoffs and hiring freezes, life sciences has continued to hire at a steady pace. Talent acquisition professionals within life sciences are beginning to see there’s an opportunity to hire candidates—especially those with technical skills—from these pools. 

“From a strategic investment standpoint, the pharmaceutical industry is seeing a lot of companies starting to hire tech talent. Because of what's going on in high tech, there's interest now in tapping into other companies that have seen layoffs.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Taking inspiration from hiring maturity models 

Industry analyst Josh Bersin created a hiring maturity model, which shows how companies move from reactive and fragmented to standardized and structured and eventually proactive and personalized. This model is inspiring life sciences employers to rethink the typical reactive approach to recruiting. Instead of starting a search in response to requests from hiring managers, they are looking into more strategic activities like proactive sourcing and succession planning. 

“There’s also a big focus on moving away from reactive search. Pipeline is becoming a big thing because most companies are trying to move up the maturity curve. To get there, we need to focus on more proactive sourcing that's actually tied to succession planning, rather than blindly supporting the immediate need. That's the evolution going on right now.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Employer branding

Employer branding is perhaps the best example of both a challenge and an opportunity for life sciences recruiting. Employers have their work cut out for them in terms of defining their employee value proposition and standing out in a crowded market. There’s also some tension around competing with tech employers, and whether this should impact employer branding efforts.

“At one point, people tended to look at what Google was doing, what Meta was doing. But if we look at our recruitment effort, we haven’t recruited anyone from Meta or from Google. We shouldn’t try to replicate what they’re doing. We’re actually doing better than they are; we’re providing more value than they can provide.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Life sciences employers are rising to the challenge by investing in research and digging into data to understand why their current employees have chosen them. 

“We're doing more with data. We're doing an internal survey that's going to 10,000 internal employees to understand why they joined our company, what’s making them stay—and if they leave, what are the reasons that they're leaving. Also, we're doing external perception, surveying roughly 20 countries right now to understand external candidate sentiment.”

 – VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Recruiting software requirements for life sciences talent acquisition teams

Given the complexity of the challenges life sciences TA professionals are facing, they’re looking to recruiting software to help. Some of their top priorities include integrations in their tech stacks, candidate CRMs that allow them to build relationships over time, and tools that will allow them to build their employer brand.  

Recruiting tech stacks that support integrations

Life sciences TA teams often use a collection of tools for human capital management (HCM), including an applicant tracking system (ATS), candidate relationship management (CRM), and additional tools for sourcing and talent intelligence. While many TA professionals are not enthusiastic about the specific tools in their tech stack (to put it mildly!), they choose to optimize for integration capabilities rather than the strength of each individual tool. 

“If you ask recruiters, they all hate the most common HCM tools. But there's a tradeoff between best-of-breed and a fully integrated application. I think most companies choose to invest in something that's fully integrated.” 

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Candidate relationship management (CRM)

As TA teams move up the hiring maturity curve, they begin to take a less transactional approach to recruiting and see the value in building relationships with candidates over time. While it can be valuable to nurture any prospective talent and engage them first whenever a new role opens, it becomes particularly important for high-priority or more specialized roles that are typically harder to fill. In all these cases, life sciences TA professionals seek out a CRM tool that will help them keep talent warm and expedite hiring. 

“Prospective talent have come to your website; they've asked for information; they've applied to certain things. They might not be the right fit for a role, but you want to keep them engaged. How do you build a talent community where you're continually engaging talent so that you have a pipeline? Once opportunities emerge, you don't have to go back out and do another big lift. 

A CRM can be useful for all roles, but for higher-priority roles—MDs, particular therapeutic areas, marketing, data science—those are the areas for which you want to have a good CRM platform.” 

Chief Talent Officer @ a leading biotechnology company

“I think people struggle with pipelining because they follow more traditional models. A lot of companies still just rely on people applying. But the industry is moving beyond that now. So the challenge is: How do you put the pipelining structure in place? Not just sourcing, but competitive intelligence, so you can actually understand the quality of the talent market.” 

VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Workforce planning / capacity planning

For TA professionals in all fields, including life sciences, capacity planning is key to being seen as a strategic partner by business leaders. Instead of simply taking orders when stakeholders want to make hires, capacity planning allows recruiting teams to predict how long hires will take and model out different scenarios based on the makeup of the TA team.

“In my previous company I owned workforce planning; we were able to effectively forecast month-to-month what we were hiring for. That’s one of our 2023 strategic priorities.”  

– VP, Head of Global Talent Acquisition @ a multinational pharmaceutical company

Capacity planning is an instance where a tool like Gem can come in handy: Gem tracks passthrough rates and forecasts how many hires you can make given historic throughput—data you can slice by everything from hiring manager, to recruiter, to department, to role. This way you always know if you have enough recruiting resources to handle the reqs coming down the pipeline. 

If you’re recruiting in the life sciences industry and want to dig deeper, we surveyed nearly 100 seasoned talent acquisition professionals in life sciences for more insights into 2023 recruiting trends. And if you’re curious to hear what other industries are facing when it comes to TA in 2023, find our guides to recruiting in financial services in 2023 here and recruiting in manufacturing in 2023 here


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