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Trends in Clinical Research Professions

Lab coats hanging under name cards

As most employers in the clinical trials industry well know, the demand for clinical research professionals exceeds the supply, a trend that is likely to continue for years. The global clinical trial service market is predicted to reach $64 billion by 2020, continuing to drive a rising demand for broad-based hiring.

Other factors driving industry workforce growth include the increasing complexity of clinical trials, which require more effort and resources to manage. Competition among pharmaceutical companies is another reason; drug companies are pressed to increase their margins and market share by continuing to develop new drugs at a lower cost.

In addition, demand for both staffing and services has grown in the clinical space. In recent years, many organizations engaged in resource-intensive clinical trials for developing drugs or medical devices are increasingly outsourcing to service providers able to both recruit and manage staff, a trend that Aerotek executives believe is a long-term movement. When organizations partner with staffing companies that also have service capabilities, they have access to top talent while also retaining greater flexibility and oversight into employees’ performance.

Pat Bauer, Aerotek manager of Clinical Divisional Operations, notes, “Having qualified, experienced clinical research staff is critical to the success of a clinical trial. When you combine this with the high demand and low supply of the clinical research workforce, organizations are looking for a consistent staffing or service provider who can help them win.”

The past five years have generated much industry dialogue about best practices to attract and retain these workers. Large organizations and associations have been deliberating how the industry can infuse talent into this industry.

For many years, the industry placed heavy emphasis on experience, with companies often rigidly dictating a specific level of experience to their outsourced CROs. This can cause a domino effect:

  • Inflexibility with the experience requirement can make it difficult to inject new talent
  • This can result in a lack of a talent pipeline with developed skillsets
  • In addition, over time, experienced professionals will be promoted into management or retire.

The combination of these factors exacerbates the supply and demand challenges in the industry.

Navigating expectations

The industry has recently begun to realize the unintended consequences of its overemphasis on the experience requirement; companies are increasingly investing in people with a certain degree of competencies as opposed to a specific number of years in the profession. The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP), for example, has begun collaborating with various organizations to eliminate the “arbitrary” requirement for entry-level clinical research associates to have two years of monitoring experience. ACRP Workforce Innovation Officer Terri Hinkley says the practice has “pretty much eliminated the CRA pipeline and resulted in an ongoing shortage of new entrants to become CRAs.” ACRP contends the industry focus should be on developing “clear descriptions of core competencies and skillset expectations [that] will benefit both employees and supervisors.”

Companies should also consider that the salary range for clinical professionals can vary widely based on a number of factors, including experience level, geographic area and specializations. High demand regions such as San Francisco and Boston compel higher wages and bonuses. In addition, across all regions and markets, candidates want to see defined career paths that will help them advance and move toward greater earning potential, such as the path from clinical research associate to clinical trial managers or clinical project managers, which would anticipate increased annual wages upwards of $30,000, according to PayScale.

Strategies for attracting talent

It is also imperative for companies engaged in project planning to know the market and develop a solid plan for its human capital needs. This requires strategic thinking and fine-tuning of requirements to ensure a sound staffing plan. Staffing partners can often help tailor employee value propositions (EVP) to a specific department’s requirement based on what they are seeing in the marketplace. The talent gap is a significant challenge, but it needn’t be an unmanageable one. Aerotek executives note that the people who talk with candidates in a given field every day are ideally poised to help solve the problem. The most effective talent acquisition occurs when staffing partners fully understand a company’s EVP and incorporate their insight on what candidates are looking for to help companies market their opportunity.

With core competencies constituting both a factor in hiring and a priority objective in employee development, some employers have implemented “early talent development programs” to build critical competencies in professionals just entering the field. And beyond such initiatives, the most successful organizations exercise a degree of flexibility in their strategic partnerships, allowing staffing experts to negotiate years of experience based on insightful knowledge of specific employer requirements and candidates’ past performance

Investing in the future

The clinical industry as well has made progress with strategic initiatives to address talent needs into the future. Clinical trial workforce development has been particularly stunted by the effects of calendar-based experience requirements, as demonstrated over the past decade by a prevalence of U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection discrepancies. In response, ACRP initiated a joint task force for clinical competency, to cultivate a single, global set of professional core competencies. The task force developed and launched the “Harmonized Core Competency Framework,” which has since been utilized worldwide to develop job descriptions, training programs and paths for professional development.

"For the first time, a universally applicable, globally relevant framework exists that identifies the competency domains and the associated cognitive skills necessary to conduct a high-quality, ethical, and safe clinical trial." The framework has led to approval of critical accreditation standards and guidelines by the Committee on Accreditation of Academic Programs in Clinical Research. In 2016, it was implemented by Duke University School of Medicine as part of a comprehensive workforce development initiative.

Other promising endeavors include the launch of CRA apprenticeship programs such as the program at Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD). PPD’s year-long program targets veterans and transitioning military with clinical experience, and as “the first CRA apprenticeship program registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, [begins] in North Carolina, Texas and California in the first quarter of [2017].”

While these and comparable programs may take time to fully implement on a national and global level, they illustrate the significance of developing sustainable talent pipelines and revitalizing the talent pool. The most visionary efforts can be expected to have broad impact on the clinical research industry for decades to come.

Want to learn more about recruiting clinical research professionals? Contact Aerotek now.