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Hired ... For Now

As the pharmaceutical industry downsizes, companies use more short-term and contract workers to fill their needs

by Linda Wang
December 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 48

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
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Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

After being laid off in 2010 from the pharmaceutical company Roche, where he had worked for nearly 14 years, Paul Oleas thought it would only be a matter of time before he found another permanent position.

But after six months of searching, and no full-time opportunities in sight, the pharmaceutical chemist accepted a six-month contract position with MAP Pharmaceuticals. At the end of the contract, Oleas was offered a full-time position. His relief was short-lived, however, as the company was acquired by Allergan, and Oleas was laid off again.

Oleas is now in his third short-term contract position in as many years, and he’s accepted the possibility that he may never attain the sense of permanency he once had. “You have to roll with the punches,” he says. “And you have to try to make the best out of it that you can.”

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With the pharmaceutical industry continuing to downsize, companies are increasingly turning to contingent workers to fill their business needs. These short-term workers worry they are getting short shrift when it comes to career development and pay, compared with regular employees. They also feel a gulf growing between themselves and colleagues they need to collaborate with on a day-to-day basis. However, not all see the picture as unfailingly grim. Oleas, for instance, says that “short-term contracts may bring unforeseen opportunities for career growth” because they can provide chemists with a diversity of work experiences.

Experts say the trend toward short-term employees is only going to continue as pharma tries to make operations more nimble. “Research and development in the pharma/biotech industry is a risky endeavor,” says Daniel Gold, president and global head of the R&D search practice at Fairway Consulting Group, a pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device recruiting firm in Lynbrook, N.Y. “Most research and development efforts fail, and because of that, pharmaceutical companies want more flexibility” in hiring.

“We always prefer to hire a full-time employee, but if there’s a high risk that the work won’t be there in a year, we don’t want to bring somebody on full-time and then have to do layoffs,” says Debbie Durso-Bumpus, senior director of talent management at Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass.

Help For Unemployed Chemists

Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. To address the urgent needs of its unemployed members, the American Chemical Society offers an extensive suite of career assistance tools and discounts. These benefits include the following:

◾ Waived national dues
◾ Free national meeting registration
◾ Deferred life insurance premiums
◾ Online job boards

ACS offers all of its members a number of other free career assistance tools. They include the following:
◾ ACS Virtual Career Fair
◾ ACS Webinars
◾ ACS Careers blog
◾ Personal career consulting

She notes that “the contingent worker is likely going to be a permanent part of the talent mix” in the pharmaceutical industry.

That means job seekers need to adjust their expectations for what their careers are going to look like, says Jay Collier, a scientific recruiter with Kelly Scientific Resources in Denver. “The idea that you can land a research position and stay safely tucked away for 30 years or more is no longer the case,” he says. “If you’re considering entering science, you’d be wise to understand that this is the nature of the landscape and ask yourself, ‘Am I comfortable with this type of a dynamic?’ ”

Across the U.S., the number of people holding temporary positions is on the rise. Whereas long-term positions—measured by seasonally adjusted total nonfarm employment—rose 1.7% from August 2012 to August 2013, temporary-help employment rose 7.5% during that same period.

Within the American Chemical Society membership, roughly 3% of industrial members who responded to the 2013 ACS Comprehensive Salary & Employment Survey reported being in a temporary or fixed-term contract position (C&EN, Sept. 23, page 9). Although this percentage has stayed relatively flat in recent years, new graduates, with a current unemployment rate of more than 12%, may in fact experience a higher rate of temporary work, says Gareth Edwards, senior research associate in the ACS Research & Brand Strategy department.

Gold says that five years ago, Fairway Consulting Group wasn’t involved in providing contractors, only full-time employees. Now, he says, filling these positions brings in 15–20% of the company’s revenue.

Similarly, Marc Miller, senior director of medicinal and process chemistry at life sciences recruiting firm Klein Hersh International, has seen an uptick in contract and temporary hiring. Approximately 20–25% of the firm’s placements are for contract positions, and he anticipates that percentage will grow. “I think you’ll see it move toward almost a 50-50 split between permanent and contract hiring into 2014 and 2015,” he says.

Durso-Bumpus says that contractors make up roughly 10% of Cubist’s workforce, a percentage that has been growing as a result of the company’s recent acquisitions, global expansion, and the advancement of several drugs into Phase III clinical trials. In March, the company brought on a third-party managed-service provider, located on-site, specifically to handle its growing contingent workforce. “This is pretty prevalent within the pharmaceutical industry,” Durso-Bumpus says of on-site managed-service providers. “It makes a lot of sense if you’ve got a number of contingent workers at your facility.”

Although the pharmaceutical industry is clearly shifting toward a greater reliance on contingent workers, what’s unclear is how this will impact chemists’ careers.

“I worry that I won’t grow as a scientist,” says Wesley Austin, who earlier this year accepted a one-year contract position at a biopharmaceutical company after the start-up he was employed at for five years folded. “When companies have an employee for only a short time, they’re not going to invest in that employee’s development.”

Scott Franks, who has been in the same short-term contract position at a medical device company for three years, says that contractors can sometimes feel separated from the permanent staff. For example, he says, at the company he works for, contractors aren’t invited to the company holiday parties, and they’re not allowed to participate in committees.

The growth of a contingent workforce worries Erin Hatton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and author of the book “The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America.” “Not only do these jobs not offer any sense of job security, these jobs also pay lower wages and offer worse benefits,” she says.

Permanent employees could also be affected by the rise of contingent workers, Hatton says. “When workers are worried about being replaced by contingent employees, they’re more willing to accept lower wages and worse benefits packages.”

Nevertheless, it seems that contingent jobs are here to stay, and chemists will have to make the most of their experiences. Austin says that having a short-term contract position where he can keep his skills fresh is far better than holding out for that perfect full-time position that may never come.

And from an industry perspective, it doesn’t hurt to have a diverse background of experiences. “People who have worked at multiple companies over the course of a couple of years can bring to us a lot of knowledge about new technologies and what systems work,” says Durso-Bumpus. In addition, “the ability to adapt to different cultures, different processes, and different structures is a great skill set to have.”

“Too many chemists focus only on a limited set of their technical skills, thus making themselves a commodity,” notes Bill Suits, an ACS career consultant. Even if companies don’t give chemists in contingent positions career development opportunities, Suits encourages chemists to create these opportunities themselves. “They have to continue to advance their skills, and those skills include leadership, communication, project management, and regulatory awareness.”

“Even if it’s a contract position, invest yourself in it as if it were full-time,” Collier advises. “That’s attractive to hiring managers that would be willing to make that conversion when funds become available.”

Austin’s contract will be up next year, and he’s still searching for full-time positions. But he also accepts the possibility that he may have to take another short-term contract position. “I’m comfortable with it because this is the new normal,” he says. “Even with a permanent position, it isn’t guaranteed that you’ll be there for a long time.”


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