Salary Survey: A Healthy Trajectory for Clinical Research Professionals

February 11, 2020
Lisa Henderson

Applied Clinical Trials

Volume 29, Issue 2

The perfect storm of industry growth, opportunity, and demand is translating to solid salary and satisfaction levels among clinical trial professionals, according to new survey.

As the clinical trials industry sails into 2020 with the brisk winds of a strong R&D and innovative science pushing further into clinical development, the salary and satisfaction levels of clinical trial professionals are fairly strong as well. In late 2019, Applied Clinical Trials, along with our survey partner SCORR Marketing, surveyed our audience on compensation, current job satisfaction, and future career plans. This year’s Salary & Employee Satisfaction Survey shows that only half of respondents are looking for new jobs, and many who are leaving are doing so for better overall opportunities. SCORR Marketing’s own report based on the data is available for download here.

The majority of our respondents fell into the manager and director/executive director level of responsibility, each at 35%. For the years worked for an organization, the respondents were spread fairly equally from less than one year to five years, at 51%, and six years to more than 20 years, at 49%. And the size of the company based on number of employees was comparable-companies with ranges between one to 1,000 totaled 54%, while 1,001 to over 10,000 was 44%. Two percent were unsure.

What all of this speaks to is the diversity of respondents, which represent the diversity of the Applied Clinical Trials readership.

Jason Hersh, managing partner for executive search firm Klein Hersh International, told Applied Clinical Trials that the overall employment landscape in the life sciences is more robust and competitive than ever and shows no signs of slowing down. Hersh noted that this healthy hiring environment is driven by scientific breakthroughs in areas such as gene and cell therapy, biologics, and other fields of personalized medicine, which is empowering major innovation in drug discovery. This, in turn, has brought record levels of venture funding into the biopharma space, fueling the start-up of a multitude of new companies.

“From an employment perspective, rapid biopharma market growth is driving an increased need for top talent to fill executive positions and manage critical R&D programs,” says Hersh. “With so many companies seeking to fill key management and scientific roles, the demand for talent is outpacing the available supply of top professionals with proven pedigrees.”

Specific to the clinical trials piece, biopharma’s dynamic pipelines and significant cash resources has them in search of people to move their programs along. “This has made the hiring of clinical operations professionals to manage early- and late-stage programs one of the most competitive areas within the life sciences employment landscape,” notes Hersh. “There is an abundance of opportunities for clinical roles and all companies are essentially competing for the same talent.”

Randstad US provides outsourcing, staffing, consulting, and workforce solutions within many industries, including life sciences, and it recently released its 2020 salary guide. John Ebeid, senior vice president of Randstad Life Sciences, told Applied Clinical Trials that the 2019 projection for the demand for clinical trial managers held true, and continues into 2020. “If we look at the record number of FDA approvals in the last three years, along with the number of NDAs, and the amount of money that is going into R&D spend, we expect that to continue to drive demand for over the next five years,” he says.

Another role in demand is drug safety specialists, which is seeing growth on both sides of the pharmacovigilance (PV) spectrum-in clinical trials and commercial. Ebeid notes that medical reviewers with an MD are needed to review cases, and RNs are needed to staff call centers for patients on already marketed drugs. Specifically, the report found that the PV market is expected to experience 10% growth, reaching $8 billion by 2024.

Medical writers with technology, regulatory, or scientific experience are in significant demand. Finding such candidates with expertise in those areas is very challenging, says Ebeid. There were more than 30,000 job

postings for technical writers-which includes medical writers-last year, according to the Randstad report, and the employment opportunities for this group is expected to grow 11% by 2026.

While these roles are more recently in demand, Randstad did highlight the continuing demand to fill clinical research associate (CRA) positions, noting that there have been 4,000 job postings in the last 12 months alone. But the CRA role, historically, has also had challenges, which were noted in BDO USA’s recently released 2019/2020 CRO Industry Global Compensation & Turnover Survey. In that report, BDO found that CRA turnover rates in the U.S. reached a five-year high of nearly 30%. In addition, the report also stated that there has been little change in the CRO industry’s use of incentives in the U.S. since 2015.

Judy Canavan, global employer services managing director at BDO, told Applied Clinical Trials that CROs are under intense pressure to contain their costs; however, the costs of high turnover to CROs are also significant. “There are the recruiting costs, and the loss of intellectual capital and the impact of their loss to the trial team,” says Canavan. “One of the questions on an RFP (request for proposal) will be, what is your turnover rate? Sponsors know that turnover will negatively impact their team, so it does benefit CROs to retain employees.”

The skinny on salary vs. other benefits

Clearly, the type of organization, type of position, and years with a company accounted for the salary ranges across the board, as seen in the chart at right.

The majority of respondents do not receive either bonus or cash supplemental income, nor do they receive non-cash compensation. Half of the respondents received a 1%-to-4% salary increase in the past year, while 15% received increases between 5% to more than 20%, and 31% stayed at the same salary. When we evaluate how the survey respondents view their salary or compensation against other benefits, it becomes clear that cash isn’t always king. Ten percent of respondents listed inadequate compensation as a challenge, and 26% were considering a job change for better compensation. However, those factors trailed opportunities for career development, which was cited by 31% of respondents, and were closely aligned with professional advancement as the driver, at 24%.

Hersh notes that it’s important for companies to provide professionals who have expressed a desire to learn and work with mentors those opportunities for career development-and the time to pursue them on top of

their daily workload. “I think it goes to the bigger question of culture. We talk to our clients all the time about finding the right cultural fit during the recruitment process,” he says. “Equally important to finding leaders who have skills and expertise to help meet your scientific and business goals, is bringing on-board professionals who will embrace and advance your organization’s unique culture. Helping professionals to learn and develop new skills is a critical part of achieving that cultural buy-in once the candidate comes on board.”

In the CRA role, Canavan points out that incentives outside of compensation are also important, but more difficult to achieve. Specifically, the CRA professional is harder to engage to create the glue or commitment to a particular company or organizational culture because they usually work from home and travel a lot. Canavan agrees as well that training or career development opportunities are critical and some CROs do offer that for CRAs, even though they know that the employee could take those skills to another CRO. “It’s a dilemma for them, but some do choose to make the commitment,” she says.

The other issue is what Hersh mentions earlier-companies providing the time for employees to pursue that training or career development. “Some CRAs are so busy on projects, it’s hard to find the time to take advantage of these opportunities,” adds Canavan.

Nevertheless, ultimately, the top answers from the 49% of respondents in our survey planning to leave their current position-better career development options, better training or continuing education, and professional advancement-all translate into more compensation. “All of these features would result in a

higher compensation package,” says Canavan. She says that employees may be looking at their CV and see gaps-maybe they are limited by a specialty, say cardiovascular, and want to get more oncology experience. Or, again, for the CRA role in the robust employment environment (the unemployment rate reported in the U.S. was 3.6% as of October 2019), they can go to a pharma company, academic research center, or academia. “They have to weigh the pros and cons, maybe an academic research center has the same pay but has less travel,” notes Canavan.

Hersh agrees that industry professionals are looking for new positions for a variety of reasons. “From a career development perspective, some candidates are attracted to opportunities to work in a new field of science, particularly in cell and gene therapy, or work as part of a broader clinical research team,” he says. “Professional advancement and compensation are also fueling a higher level of turnover among biopharma professionals currently. Some people are leaving positions with less than a year of tenure because they want to capitalize on the robust demand for clinical talent to gain a position at a higher organizational level, higher salary, or both.”

In our survey, we asked, “Has another company ever recruited you (without you contacting them first) while you’ve been working at your current place of employment?” Seventy percent responded yes. Hersh explains the reasons for this finding: “We are seeing a marketplace for biopharma talent that is more competitive than

ever. Simply put, supply and demand for talent is not even close to being aligned. There are many more opportunities available then there are qualified candidates to fill them. As I mentioned, companies are essentially competing for the same talent. Candidates, in some cases, are weighing multiple offers simultaneously. In this environment, relationships and the ability to tap into a broad network of professionals across the life sciences industry are critical to efficiently recruiting the right people to fill unique hiring goals and corporate priorities.”

Ebeid also emphasized the competitive environment in the life sciences, and that candidates are receiving multiple job offers, especially in biotech hotbeds such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston. For those candidates, Ebeid says, “It really comes down to compensation and company culture.”

The future

While Ebeid doesn’t see any leveling off of interest in life sciences profession demands, he does foresee a change in skill sets and roles. “We continue to see record levels of R&D spend moving into areas related to aging, immunotherapy, and cell and gene therapy,” says Ebeid. “Also, there is continued innovation in many areas, including technology. So we will see roles that will couple scientific degrees with technology.”

As big data, AI, and other data-related information technologies grow, Ebeid believes new roles such as computational biologist will become popular. “There will be completely new roles that didn’t exist before,” he says, alluding to his own degree in molecular biology. “When I graduated, you could go into research, or pursue a PhD into education. Now, with today’s technology and with that degree, we see demand for those with experience with assays, bioprocessing, and cell culturing-and that’s not just in life sciences. There’s a huge demand for that in healthcare and manufacturing.” 

 

Related articles

2017 Salary and Satisfaction Survey: http://www.appliedclinicaltrialsonline.com/salary-and-satisfaction

Link to Jason Hersh video: http://www.pharmexec.com/executive-search-tips

 

Lisa Henderson is Editor-in-Chief of Applied Clinical Trials. She can be reached at lhenderson@mmhgroup.com

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