Industry Leaders Outline Best Strategies for Attracting Talent in the BioHealth Capital Region

Recruiting and attracting talent is one of the top priorities and challenges for biotech and life science companies, even amid the current coronavirus pandemic. To help address those challenges, WorkForce Genetics organized a virtual panel of HR and talent acquisition leaders and local CEO’s to share their insights and best practices.

On April 15th over 125 attendees joined the online panel event which was co-hosted by the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SOPE), entitled “Attracting Talent in the BioHealth Capital Region.” Panelists included Marty Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council (MTC); Kate Surdez, VP, Human Resources at Viela Bio; and Matthew Levy, Associate Director, Talent Acquisition at Kite Pharma, a Gilead Company. Dr. Jeffrey Hausfield, Chairman of the Board and Chief Medical Officer at BioFactura and the Co-founder and President of SoPE, acted as the panel’s moderator.

Topics covered during the discussion included regional branding, employer branding, small versus large company recruiting strategies, competition for talent and workforce development.  However, an important topic that was addressed early on was how the panelists and their respective organizations have pivoted to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kite, BioFactura, Viela and MTC have all moved quickly to adopt virtual interviewing, virtual hiring and remote onboarding for new employees. Levy mentioned that Kite has been conducting virtual happy hours and brown bag lunch events and that hiring decisions at Kite are now being made via video only. Viela Bio has moved to a virtual hiring, training and onboarding process as well to transition over the next several months.

According to Rosendale, many MTC members have cited the virtual onboarding process as a particularly big challenge during the COVID-19 crisis. Hausfeld agreed, mentioning that virtual onboarding has presented some challenges for BioFactura when hiring for technical positions that require hands on training and mentorship.

Watch the full webinar: Attracting Talent in the BioHealth Capital Region

The panelist agreed that COVID-19 is likely to alter the way hiring is conducted even after the pandemic eases and social distancing is no longer mandated. Kite’s Levy believes that both face-to-face and virtual interviews will have their roles in the post coronavirus era, with virtual interactions perhaps taking place early on while in person interviews will still anchor the final stages of the decision-making process.

Rosendale agreed with Levy, stating that the “…question here is about reimagining the future. When we come out of this there are going to be changes; it’s not going to go 100% virtual but these tools will stay with us.”

Here is a rundown of their advice on the following topics…

Regional Branding:

Another key topic that was covered was the branding of the BioHealth Capital Region (BHCR) as compared to other biohealth clusters.

“In terms of the regional brand — and I’ve worked in the New York/New Jersey area and done a lot of networking in the Boston area building biotech relationships — it has improved and is always improving and the relationship at the state level has been very productive…we’re growing and landing big companies like Kite is really helpful in continuing to allow people options to stay in the area,” stated Surdez.

“Having a few landmark, large pharmas with innovative, smaller biotechs and organizations like NIH and others is really helpful and gives folks a way to stay here not just for the one job but for the opportunity to hop to other companies,” she added.

Surdez also offered that, “We have had very little difficulty with any recruitment activities. A lot of that is because people want to stay in the area and I think Maryland does have a good story around what it can offer in terms of coming and staying in the area.”

“Kite wanted to join the region and one of the top reasons is the talent that’s already available in the area. My background is primarily from the Philadelphia area and Philadelphia is working hard to create a brand in the life sciences. Our region in Maryland, similarly, needs to work hard to compete with the brands that exist in Boston, the Bay Area, San Diego and Seattle,” stated Levy.

“When we are looking to relocate talent to an area, we offer candidates an area tour. A picture is worth a thousand words. We can say as much as we want about how wonderful the BioHealth Capital Region is, but when we bring them in and they see the wonderful communities, parks and companies then they really get excited about what’s going on and that helps us bring talent in,” he added.    

“This region is in a dynamic phase. We are the origin of cell and gene therapy…today that industry is maturing, it’s becoming commercial…so much is happening all at once…What we need to do is tell these stories outside of Maryland. We do a great job talking amongst ourselves…but we have to pull these stories together and talk about all these successes and get these messages out of the state,” said Rosendale.

“We need others to understand how dynamic, fun and amazing it is to be part of this region,” he added.

Employer Branding and Recruiting:

The importance of regional branding is mirrored by a need for individual companies to develop and promote employer brands that set them apart when seeking talent. The panelists agreed that employer branding is becoming more and more important as the competition for talent grows.

Both smaller, emerging companies and established life science organizations are putting greater emphasis and investment into employer branding and building talent pools. In many ways, technology has leveled the recruiting playing field between companies of all sizes.   

According to Levy, “It starts with the employees you recruit in the beginning. If you recruit employees that are ‘talent magnets’… or ‘talent scouts’, it is a bit like ‘birds of a feather flock together’. They attract more people, who attract more people, and so on.  This is the sort of thing that can really help build your brand.  I do think it’s important to have a regional focus with your brand… Kite does participate with BioBuzz and it has been great to get the word out to the specific biotech community.”

For a much smaller company like Viela Bio, the strategy was very similar. It’s reputation and who they have inside the company has formed the foundation of their branding and recruiting strategy.

“It’s our culture… it’s who we house and who they know.  A lot of what Viela Bio has been able to do is by reputation… folks are flocking and interested in working with us,” shared Surdez.

Surdez further emphasized that for them, the employer brand… “must line up to the culture, and answer why you would leave the safety of whatever job you’re in to take some risk with a smaller startup. For us it’s about an opportunity to truly follow the science and truly have impact at a smaller organization… we want to make sure we offer a story that is very attractive to a local scientist or a leader who wants to make a change in atmosphere and environment for a few years. That’s something that we have been very successful in seeing within Viela Bio.”

Dr. Hausfeld echoed that, “As a small company, we have used our reputation to build our talent pool. It really is both through our connections, our reputation and our employees and their networks that have brought the talent into the door.”

In summarizing the key take-aways about employer branding – early hires can play a big role in building a company brand and act as talent magnets and employer brand ambassadors; and communicating a strong reputation and a culture that aligns with the needs and desires of the target talent pool is essential.

Small Versus Large Company Strategies:

For startups and emerging companies, funding levels can be a hurdle to hiring top talent, as candidates can become concerned with a company’s “burn rate” or how long its funding will last. Conversely, large, established companies can lose talent because a candidate is looking for a more intimate corporate culture.

“At Viela, our biggest bullet point on our job descriptions is ‘and other things as required.’ The value for some at a small company is that you get to stretch and grow,” stated Surdez.

“The funding question is really about risk. Risk tolerance is a big part of what will help a person decide to go with a small or a big company. Someone who has a higher tolerance for risk and is excited about the opportunity to wear a couple of different hats and grow as the company grows is more inclined to go with a smaller company rather than a larger one,” added Rosendale.

Levy added, “We’re in a unique position at Kite in that we can talk about our small biotech roots, as Kite was founded in 2009 and in 2014 Kite only had 20 employees. Now Kite has 2,300 employees. We’ve experienced a lot of growth but we have this small company mindset…and the resources of the parent company, Gilead.”

“One thing we have to guard against is that candidates might think that we have the big pharma mentality and a lot of bureaucracy…which there is some of as you scale your company. But we try to talk authentically about who we are, what we’re doing for patients and the type of employees that thrive in our environment. Sometimes it’s ok if they self select out based on that,” Levy added.

There are many challenges that HR professionals confront when it comes to talent attraction and retention. A live poll of the panel’s audience revealed the following:

Competition for Talent:

Balancing the uplifting of a regional brand with moderating competition among BHCR life science companies is an imperative to avoid driving up operational costs, which can then increase the cost of products to patients.

Rosendale addressed talent competition concisely, stating that “Until we solve the shortage of talent, we’re going to have this challenge of people recruiting from one another in the state.  This is where employer branding becomes so important, and the culture of one company versus another.”

Retaining talent and developing expectations for how long a new employee might remain with an organization is yet another calculation companies need to make, especially in a competitive environment.

“There are no more lifers,” said Surdez. “What we want is an employee to have the experience they desire so we can all get the most out of the relationship.”

“I think companies owe it to employees to do their best work and be their best selves…We have to realize that there may come a point where there is a divergence between what the company is looking for and what the employee is looking for. To retain talent, companies have to provide employees to do great work and grow their career,” stated Levy.

Workforce Development:

Bringing more people into the life science field at all levels is a big need in the BHCR. The MTC and other life science support organizations in the region are working to fill the talent gap at all levels of experience. The panelists agreed that developing different talent and skill sets is essential to the health of the BHCR, as is ensuring a level of diversity in the workforce that matches the great cultural diversity prevalent in the BHRC.

MTC is working to help with that talent pipeline by collaborating with colleges and universities and providing the voice of the industry to help develop relevant new curriculum and programs.  Citing a new Biotech MBA program at Bowie State as an example, as well as the Montgomery College, PIC MC programs that are working with people looking to make a career change to get an exciting job in biotech without having to get an advanced degree.

“I see more and more young people being attracted into the STEM areas. The more focus we can put on that, the more people we can attract and pull into this field. I see the outlook as being good but there’s a lot of work we can do to make it better. We’ll get through the shortage that we are in but as we expand these programs we’ll see more talent coming out,” stated Rosendale.

Rosendale added that to solve the talent attraction and acquisition challenges in this region, everyone needs to get involved. Opportunities like MTC’s Life Science Workforce Coalition bring HR professionals together to problem solve and collaborate.

“Get involved and come out to the events and help be a part of the solution,” stated Rosendale.

The wide ranging, insightful panel offered the audience valuable insights into the hiring challenges and advantages of the BHRC. WorkForce Genetics’ and SoPE’s first virtual panel concluded with a lively virtual Q&A session with its remote audience members. If you’d like to join the conversation, visit our LinkedIn post.

Watch the full, recorded webinar below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.