Life Sciences Job Seekers:
You’re in the Negotiation Driver’s Seat

Some of the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our lives and various markets fast and hard. Other pandemic impacts have taken a bit longer to unfold, and some of these have been surprising, like lingering supply chain disruptions, the most recent example of which are the scores of massive container ships filled with goods unable to dock and are stranded at sea across the globe. 

The pandemic has also dramatically and perhaps irrevocably transformed the life sciences industry. The biotech and biosciences boom in the vaccine space was clearly evident here in the BioHealth Capital Region (BCHR). What’s more, the life sciences job market went from strong to scalding hot; the vaccine boom and other factors like cell and gene therapy innovations have created a biosciences job market where there are vastly more openings than there are qualified candidates to fill them.

Biotech talent from the manufacturing floor and the lab to senior managers and c-suite executives are scarce. Talent managers and recruiters are fighting tooth and nail to attract, hire, and retain the right candidates for key positions. If you’re a passive or an active life sciences job seeker, this imbalance between job openings and qualified candidates means you’re in the driver’s seat, not only when it comes to securing your next dream opportunity, but also in the leverage you hold when negotiating your next employment contract.

“Right now, we are in the most over-employed market we’ve seen in the last decade. This is not just biotechnology, but marketwide. With the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting quarter-over-quarter that open jobs are vastly exceeding unemployment, there’s no signal that it’s set to slow down anytime soon. Add in COVID-19 and we really have a perfect storm of talent shortage at a pivotal time for companies in our space,” stated Laura Frew, Scientific Recruiter at WorkForce Genetics, a leading life sciences recruiting and executive search firm located in the BHCR.

“Right now, a smart candidate with a good understanding of the market and commensurate opportunities can garner and decide between some competitive opportunities. Candidates shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate. But, as I tell my candidates, knowing the market and talking it through with experts is key,” she added.

It’s important to do your own homework and complement that research by seeking out talent experts for advice. One of the first things your research and talent market thought leaders will tell you is this: The negotiation landscape is not what it was pre-covid. Understanding your worth in the COVID-19 market, having a strong sense of mission alignment with a prospective employer, and knowing what is actually on the negotiating table are keys to securing the salary, benefits package, title, career advancement potential, professional development, and other perks that you desire.

Take remote work or hybrid work environments as one example of how the pandemic has reshaped contract negotiations. 

On the one hand, candidates enjoy an expanded geographic job market because of work-from-home capabilities and employer openness to working remotely. On the other hand, employers are also looking at ways they can leverage remote work to attract and secure candidates while also reducing benefits in other areas. The remote and hybrid work revolution is a double-edged sword, so to speak, and life sciences candidates need to be savvy and careful in this new negotiation ecosystem.

“In the mid-2000s, airlines seized a massive opportunity during the fuel crisis. For those that are old enough to remember, we saw a whole slew of new surcharges, fees, and upcharge opportunities come to the surface. People thought these charges were temporary and related to the crisis but they never went away,” stated Frew.

“What we’re seeing in the wake of COVID are, in some cases, perks and benefits coming to the chopping block. There are even discussions around how compensation can be manipulated for the ‘perk’ of working from home. So, have some negotiation points changed? For sure. Now more than ever you have to do your research and be vigilant about understanding things like paid parking, commuter benefits, paid-time-off (PTO), hybrid work environments, and more are now much more fluid than employers will let on,” she added. 

Employers and job seekers are trying to find their footing and gain leverage in this new pandemic job market. That said, the dearth of qualified talent and the surplus of job openings clearly puts a skilled bioscience professional at a distinct negotiating advantage. 

For example, when it comes to the hot button issue of working from home or hybrid arrangements, qualified job candidates need to understand what they need and make the ask during the negotiations. Remember, employers are saving a lot of money because of remote work capabilities; less office space is needed and therefore office leases and operating expenses are way down. 

Why is this important to you, the job seekers?

“Non-lab workers got a crash course in operating only by utilizing our technological resources. These remote or hybrid employees need a comfortable place to work, and with the savings employers will gain on a smaller office space footprint, they can pay for the items you need like cameras, headsets, and other tools that allow you to do your job effectively. Ask and you shall receive, in other words,” shared Frew.

“Interestingly, another major trend we’re watching is the emergence of delineated sick days (taking days for actual sickness vs. using a sick day for a day off) in addition to paid time off for vacation time. Employees have been through a ringer, and now more than ever employers understand how devastating the pandemic was, so they are more open than ever before about being flexible with time off and self care,” she added.

In addition, the availability and scope of relocation benefits have also been impacted by a talent market reshaped by the pandemic. Some employers might be less willing to pay for comprehensive, high relo costs because of remote and/or hybrid work capabilities. Every negotiation between a company and a potential employee is unique. Be sure to think about and research how relocation reimbursements and other formerly traditional negotiation touchpoints have evolved before you come to the table. 

While COVID-19 has certainly changed what is negotiated and how some job candidate negotiation best practices remain tried and true.

“I always tell candidates: you’re negotiating the second you take the first phone call. Be clear about what you want out of your career and be ready to demonstrate how effectively you have been able to accomplish projects from a remote setting,” stated Frew.

“In a recent survey from our life sciences media arm, BioBuzz, two of the biggest concerns employers have are productivity and culture when deciding whether they will require employees to come back to the office. Allay those concerns as early as possible and don’t leave room for negotiation, especially in a market that’s favoring candidates so heavily,” she added.

In addition, keep the following best practices in mind to further enhance your leverage during a contract negotiation with a desired employer:

  • Clarify Your Needs Early and Often. Being transparent and communicating clearly are highly important. Identifying which things are and are not negotiable going into the conversation will help you navigate the process.
  • Know the Market. Good companies don’t make their benefits, perks, or rewards a secret. Check out their recruitment marketing channels and careers pages. Other company’s offerings can be leveraged where appropriate.
  • Take Multiple Conversations. An old recruiting colleague used to tell candidates that looks are free. Talk to as many companies with similar roles as you can. Leverage the opportunities you like and give yourself choices and negotiating power when the time comes.
  • Keep a Bird in the Hand. If you have a role right now and you’re feeling a heavy urge to leave, don’t be too hasty. You are in a much more powerful position to negotiate when you already have a paycheck coming in. There’s much more freedom to turn down an offer that doesn’t impress you.
  • Get Creative. Have a component of your negotiables be pie-in-the-sky. If you’re a student, say that you’re looking for tuition assistance. If you’re commuting into an on-site role, say that the tolls you have to pay daily have a fixed cost that needs to be attached to the offer. 

Remember, This is a candidate’s market and you have significant leverage. Be bold and go for it but also be careful not to push too far and always be highly professional. 

Hiring managers understand candidates are driving the bus. Now it’s up to you to grab the wheel and navigate your way to that dream job.