Top Biopharma Talent Acquisition Experts Share Strategies for Hiring and Retaining Employees in 2020

The biotech industry continues to grow rapidly across the nation, especially in the BHCR. The region’s strategy for hiring and retaining employees is a key driver of the BHCR’s steady, sustained growth. The workforce development strategy and infrastructure that supplies the skilled and experienced workers needed for innovation and expansion is a key factor as well.

The region has always been known as a leading vaccine development hub, but in recent years personalized medicine, including cell and gene therapy, bacteriophage therapy, and a booming advanced biomanufacturing cluster has added to the region’s already strong and diverse biopharma portfolio. The BHCR is evolving and so are its talent needs, which begs the question, what strategic and tactical adjustments need to be made to ensure the BHCR talent pipeline can meet the region’s future workforce requirements?

A 2020 BHCR Forum virtual panel session, hosted by BioHealth Innovation’s (BHI) Managing Director of Economic Development Judy Costello, took a deep dive into the subject. The “Growing and Retaining Your Workforce” breakout session included panelists Diana Elias, Director of HR, ABL Inc.; Ellen MacMahon, VP Human Resources Global Operations/IT at AstraZeneca; and Ed Radwinsky, Head of People Operations at RoosterBio, Inc.   

Here some of the highlights from the lively and insightful panel discussion on hiring and retaining employees in 2020:

The BHCR Offers Diverse Opportunities for Talented Life Science Professionals

Before there was a BHCR brand name, only a handful of biotech and biopharma companies anchored the region like Human Genome Sciences (HGS) and MedImmune. Today, the BCHR has blossomed into a highly diverse tapestry of life science companies. 

The BHCR is rapidly becoming known as a place where talent can come and plant roots, much like the clusters in Boston and San Francisco. In recent years, the diversity of opportunity has de-risked the BHCR for talented professionals outside the region while also helping with hiring and retaining employees that are already here. 

“The breadth of size from startup to mid-size to big companies on this panel does reflect a lot of companies in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia,” stated Costello.

Each of the companies represented on the panel noted that they had been actively hiring for positions that ran the gamut from research and development and Human Resources to Quality Assurance and Bioprocessing. 

Companies and Candidates Need to Leverage Multiple Tools to Hire and Retain Employees

COVID-19 has forced companies and hiring candidates to get creative. Posting a resume or a job on Indeed or another hiring website just isn’t enough. The talent recruiting and retention landscape has quickly become much more dynamic and active with hiring managers leveraging more tools and job seekers doing the same. Social media, job boards, talent scouts, virtual hiring events, referrals, and building personal and employer brands are all critical elements to those hiring and those looking to get hired.  

“With COVID and with our industry being so competitive, we have to get creative. We’re trying to have that social media presence to create that employer brand to engage with people…we’re really looking at everything and anything to advance the growing needs of our candidates and the resource pools in the area,” stated Elias. 

Radwinsky added, “We’re primarily using LinkedIn nowadays; it’s a great way to reach passive candidates like Diana said. Make sure you have a robust LinkedIn profile out there with the right keywords because we’re lurking in the background running reports and pulling candidates from these profiles. We also try to have a strong brand on social media and our RoosterBio website; we want to make sure we give people a feel for not just what we do but how we do it and give them a sense of the culture. We put a lot of time and effort into building our brand online.”

COVID-19 Has Fundamentally Changed How Hiring and Retaining Employees Is Done

The pandemic outbreak required job seekers and talent recruiters to pivot to a virtual format nearly overnight. Phone interviews, text message exchanges, ZOOM calls, and even large virtual hiring events quickly became the norm, and elements of this virtual approach to hiring and retaining employees — and even onboarding post hire—will remain part of the hiring process moving into the future.

“We had continuity plans in place for recruiting so we were able to pivot quickly…The candidate experience was first and foremost for us so that candidates could feel connectivity with our organization. It just goes to show that you always need to think about business continuity planning. This virus has created a heightened opportunity for us all to be more agile and pivot,” shared MacMahon.

Radwinsky noted that RoosterBio also adjusted quickly, using virtual methods early in the hiring process and only bringing in a candidate for an in-person interview when they reach the final stages. Elias noted that she also brings candidates to the lab site or facility for in-person interviews later in the process. Both Radwinsky and Elias noted this is important for essential workers that will still be operating on site. RoosterBio and ABL have taken a hybrid approach to hiring while AstraZeneca, it seems, has largely stuck to a virtual process. 

Virtual career fairs have become a popular, new recruiting strategy for BHCR companies. While RoosterBio and ABL haven’t yet held a full-blown virtual hiring event, both Radwinsky and Elias noted that they are starting to move in that direction. AstraZeneca has already pivoted to larger virtual hiring events.

“It’s all new territory for everybody and I think you learn best when you try it and see what happens,” stated Elias. 

Well-rounded Talent is in High Demand

The panelists stated that they are open to hiring a postdoc or a recent college graduate looking to enter the life science industry. However, a candidate’s scientific “chops” need to be part of a broader skillset that not only delivers great science but also does so in a way that keeps the business top-of-mind.

“Being able to operate enterprise wide across all the different functional areas and to realize that this is a business is important. We need to get products to the market and generate revenues. I’ve heard people say they just want ‘to tinker in the lab.’ That might be fine in R&D, but this is a business and we’re trying to run a company. In industry, there isn’t the luxury to just “tinker in the lab’,” stated Radwinsky.

MacMahon noted that at AstraZeneca they look for a blend of scientific skills and an ability to think Big Picture, be collaborative and have an entrepreneurial, growth mindset. Radwinksy cited project management, including experience handling budgets and resources, and strong communications skills as highly attractive attributes for a job candidate.

“We are a manufacturing organization and we run lean. We need people to have hands-on experience and scientific knowledge. I’d suggest postdocs focus on research and scientific projects that can translate easily to a business. And when you are applying, talk about how that science equals dollars or how it can further the mission, objectives and goals of the company. What sounds good in academia may not sound good to the business,” added Elias.

A Great Candidate Experience Drives Hiring and Retention Success 

Delivering a great candidate experience from start to finish takes a holistic approach that sees each phase of the process as part of a continuum that rolls up into a company’s employer brand.     

“Retention is very important. The candidate experience is very important to us and we want to be honest and transparent with them about where we’re going. We want to engage them from the moment they are a candidate all the way through onboarding. Once they are here, we then need to figure out how to keep them. There is quite a bit of turnover in the industry and we’re going after one another’s people. We want to create a good experience so they want to stay with us,” stated Elias.

“There is no magic wand or silver bullet. We take a broad approach at RoosterBio…we evaluate every candidate as a cultural fit….once we have people in here we want to keep them. It is a big challenge for the region. We need to bring more talent to the area. Part of the goal is how do we get people to come here and stay here. Retention is always on our mind,” stated Radwinsky.

MacMahon added, “We have a mission that starts with our values. We follow the science, we play to win and we are patient-focused. We try to survey our employees twice a year and do crowdsourcing events so we are staying close to our employees…We want to create a place where people want to be and stay.”

Diversity Remains Top-of-Mind in the Hiring Process

Each of the panelists noted that diversity has always been a focus of their hiring and people management processes, but that recent events have elevated the conversation at their respective organizations. 

Radwinsky stated that he and the RoosterBio leadership team had recently met with a diversity and inclusion consultant, which is aligned with RoosterBio’s strong emphasis on psychological safety. 

Elias shared that ABL is an “…amazingly diverse organization” that is actively exploring new diversity programming to encourage dialog and formalize equity and inclusion into its processes.

“We are working on some facilitated sessions…and we are really going to put our money where our mouth is to back up what we say we are, which is a diverse company where we care about everyone’s opinions.”

“We have created this global diversity framework throughout every level of our organization. We also dedicate a week in December called the Power of Diversity Week that includes speakers and sessions,” shared MacMahon. 

MacMahon also noted that AstraZeneca recently established a global inclusion and diversity council that is populated by members from every country where AstraZeneca operates. 

Recruiting Talent from Outside the Region is Essential to the BHCR

Costello noted that at last count there were some 2,000 job openings across the BHCR. She suggested that even if the region were to keep all of its homegrown talent, attracting life science professionals from other major bio clusters is an imperative. 

“The region has a lot to offer. We bring people in from all over the U.S. and from outside the U.S. We really have a global footprint. It’s really about what kind of a vibe we are creating here. There is a lot of energy and vibrancy at our site…all of our amenities matter when they are making a decision to relocate”, stated MacMahon.      

“Most of our hiring is done locally within driving distance of Frederick, Maryland. I will say that it is important to let the people we hire know what could be next for them. It’s important to share what’s next….there is a slew of biotech companies and government opportunities here. Some people are hesitant to move across the country without knowing what could be next. It’s important to share that we are the #4 biocluster in the U.S.,” stated Radwinsky. “We need to create the most vivid picture of the region as possible,” including talking about the lower cost of living and lower taxes when compared to some other bio clusters. 

Top Tips from the Panelists to Hiring Teams

Radwinsky stated that having a strong company social media presence is important. He added that generating content that showcases achievements and the company culture is very important to talent attraction. He also emphasized that it is also important that every employee should be encouraged and empowered to be a recruiter. 

Elias recommended that you need to know who you are as an organization and what makes your business unique. Think about who you are and if you’re not sure figure it out. People need to think about their employee value proposition and why people should care about it.

She added, “Be human. I’ve had so many friends that apply and then never hear anything or go through interviews and get ‘ghosted.’ We try to create a better experience for candidates; even if you don’t hire someone they might talk about you to someone else.”

MacMahon shared, “Make sure your talent story is aligned with your mission and who you are and show that commitment to your employees. From a retention standpoint, treat others how you want to be treated. Be genuine. Show your passion and talk about who you are.”

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Steven Surdez

Principal at StoryCore
Steve has over 20 years experience in copywriting, developing brand messaging and creating marketing strategies across a wide range of industries, including the biopharmaceutical, senior living, commercial real estate, IT and renewable energy sectors, among others. He is currently the Principal/Owner of StoryCore, a Frederick, Maryland-based content creation and execution consultancy focused on telling the unique stories of Maryland organizations.

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