Why are We Struggling to Attract & Retain Talent in the Life Sciences?

Attracting talent

Lea Wolfinger Attracting talentBy Lea Wolfinger, Vice President, Ashton Tweed

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Employee retention is critical to life science companies, whose clinical and regulatory processes are notoriously complex and take years to complete. If a company cannot hold on to their talent for the duration required, it could be detrimental to their product pipeline and the business’ stability as a whole. Citi analyst Yigal Nochomovitz found that 70% of the time when a biotech executive left ahead of late-stage clinical data, it meant the study wasn’t successful (Bloomberg). This is just one example of the huge impact that low retention rates can have on a company’s success in our industry. Recently, industry players have been speaking up about attracting and retaining talent and three critical aspects that are affecting their efforts:


Industry Reputation 

George Yancopoulos, Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, declared that it is important to change the public narrative of the drug industry in order to attract young talent at BIO 2019 earlier this year. “Science has become a bad name, and a worse name is biopharma,” (BioPharma Dive).

Our industry has earned this negative reputation through continuing controversies over high prices for prescription medicines, corrupt executives, and the opioid crisis. Unfortunately, with headlines about Novartis’ $2.1M gene therapy, Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes facing fraud charges, and Insys Therapeutics’ John Kapoor being the first convicted in a US opioid crisis case, it’s hard to deny that there is tangible truth to this reputation.

Needless to say, some sweeping changes need to be made in the life sciences. However, we must also campaign about the positive progress, intentions, and goals at the heart of our industry. PharmaExec outlined nine helpful tips for companies to consider putting into action after a 2018 report from Reputation Institute documented the pharma industry’s declining reputation and pinpointed a significant erosion of trust as a top contributing factor.


High-Competition Locations

When Ashton Tweed interviewed, Foad Dabiri, CEO of Wanda Inc., we asked what his biggest challenges have been so far. He answered, “Recruiting and retaining employees in the San Francisco area. In the Bay Area specifically, hiring good people is very challenging because there are a lot of options available in the tech sector[…] Especially from a compensation point of view, it can be extremely difficult.

“The other challenge is retention. The average tenure of a software engineer in the Bay Area is about two and a half years. This is something that big companies may be able to tolerate, but for us that’s a very short time.”

This can be seen in similar hubs of the industry like Massachusetts where Marion Dorsch, Chief Scientific Officer of Blueprint Medicines, is stationed. She believes that talent retention is a critical factor in boosting R&D, which is being impacted by this trend. “The industry is really suffering from turnover,” Dorsch said. “In Cambridge, this is a huge challenge. And the new generation of scientists that are coming along, they are even more impatient,” (BioPharma Dive).

In this instance, company culture and values may play a bigger role in helping to retain employees than we think. Poor culture fit is one of the major reasons people leave companies and, on the flip side, good culture fit is a main attractor. Millennials are also known for highly valuing this aspect in their job searches, so focusing on culture and values within your company could possibly settle down the competition amongst your peers… and even boost industry reputation as mentioned in my previous point.


Lean Organizations

Small companies and start-ups face an even larger threat when failing to retain employees because they have less staff members to address succession planning. My colleague Robert Ruth, who has over 25 years of experience driving recruitment strategies and providing business advice to life science clients, says, “My experience is that this is a concept that is missed often by start-ups because they are so lean and individually dependent on resources – meaning they only have one person assigned to a role or even performing multiple jobs for the company.”

This is a known risk to all small organizations, making the team building and vetting process extremely critical. Implementing a flexible workforce in these situations is a key strategy in smartly building a start-up or small company team. With interim talent specifically, companies could hire talent only for the duration needed, ensuring their valued leaders don’t leave before a task is completed. This also allows employees to switch jobs more frequently if they desire to mix it up, which seems to be the case in recent years.


Employee retention in the life sciences is a complex problem and, unfortunately, the solution is no simple answer. However, these three main points cover today’s most significant causes for low retention rates, meaning the problem can be tackled on multiple fronts. Furthermore, as we address this issue, we could also potentially be repairing the industry’s reputation, bringing competition back to a healthy norm, and experimenting with modern hiring strategies. Let us know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

Share your insights! Contact jamesrudman@ashtontweed.com to contribute your life sciences article as a guest writer.


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