Recruitment in life sciences sector widens search

Move towards valuing adaptable skills and culture fit over industry-specific experience

Éimhín O’Driscoll is a science graduate who has worked in recruitment, predominantly in pharma and life sciences, for more than 20 years. She has seen the industry in Ireland change significantly during that time. The last decade has seen even more dramatic change with the exponential growth in biopharmaceutical manufacturing and continuing investment in R&D.

Now the life sciences industry is changing again, O’Driscoll says. This time it’s in the area of leadership, employee engagement and more flexible approaches to hiring as what was once a very traditional industry evolves to meet the needs of a changing world, a tight labour market and the expectations of younger employees.

"In the last 10 years, we have seen over €10 billion capital investment in the sector. Life sciences account for 32 per cent of GDP and continue to develop and evolve with ongoing announcements of investment and expansion," says O'Driscoll, who is managing partner of Fastnet Executive Search. "This growth obviously represents an opportunity for those interested in moving job and one of the interesting trends emerging is a shift in hiring practices at leadership level by the sector.

“Traditionally, the industry hired from within quite a specific pool. Now we’re seeing a move towards valuing adaptable skills and culture fit over industry-specific experience.”


Different background

Backing this up are the results of a survey carried out recently by Fastnet with 250 senior executives in the life sciences sector. It showed that 40 per cent of them had worked in a different industry in their previous role.

“Life sciences will always require specific expertise for certain jobs but, if there is good technical knowledge within a team, having a team leader who has a different background or skills can be beneficial. Diversity of thought is valuable and companies are recognising this,” O’Driscoll says.

To emphasise the point she cites the example of a candidate with an armed forces background who has moved into supply chain management within the sector; and candidates from food manufacturing and electronics who have moved into biopharma.

Killian O’Driscoll is director of projects at NIBRT (National Institute of Bioprocessing Research and Training) and, writing in a LinkedIn post in January, he noted just how strong 2021 was for the Irish biopharma manufacturing sector with major investment announcements from multinational and indigenous companies alike.

These included Pfizer which announced a €40 million expansion of its Grange Castle site in Dublin, Takeda which announced a €36 million investment that will create 100 jobs over the next three years, and Amgen which is spending over €80 million on a state-of-the-art vial filling line at its plant in Dublin.

"Reflecting the strength of the sector there were also significant announcements from technology, vendor and services companies which support the biopharma industry including Repligen Corporation creating 130-plus new jobs in Waterford, Accenture with 500 new roles in Cork, Watson-Marlow's new Cork facility, Bionical Emas creating 35 jobs in Kilbeggan, Charles River Laboratories' €8 million site expansion in Ballina and Bio-Techne Corporation opening its new Dublin facility," Killian O'Driscoll says.

Regenerative leadership

Éimhín O'Driscoll mainly recruits at director and C-suite level and, as part of her own career development, she recently completed a diploma in executive coaching at the IMI. During the course she became interested in the concept of regenerative leadership (as defined by sustainability and leadership experts Laura Storm and Giles Hutchins in their book of the same name) and how it might help her clients as they battle to find and retain talent.

“A regenerative organisation is where organisations are viewed as living systems, everything is interconnected and a more fluid way of working encourages a coaching culture of learning, feedback and adaptation which is enriching for all,” she says.

“These organisations tend to be much flatter with distributed leadership and more autonomy. They are less machine-like and more human. This leads into a leadership style that moves away from a linear and mechanistic approach to one that is more empathic and affirming.”

This interest in regenerative leadership prompted O’Driscoll to ask her clients about the big challenges they faced. Digitalisation, supply chain disruption and sustainability were all listed as significant. However, employee engagement was at the top. Almost 90 per cent of respondents said it was their biggest challenge.

O’Driscoll was not overly surprised by this as she says jobs have become more complex, organisations are transforming very rapidly and new talent models are emerging based on purpose and meaning.

“From analysing the results, it seems that leaders are starting to think a little differently. Purpose, autonomy and trust, continuous learning and flexible working are all becoming key priorities for developing employee engagement regardless of sector,” she says.

O’Driscoll adds that younger employees, in particular, have a different attitude to employment. They want to work for organisations with a positive culture where they have a strong connection to the value they create during their working day.

“Job scope and reward packages continue to be key drivers for candidates making significant career choices. However, they are also focusing a lot more on the values of prospective employers and adopting a more thorough approach to understanding company culture,” she says.

“We have come through a period that has facilitated an exceptional chance for deep reflection and reassessment. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of a ‘return to normal’, this is an opportune time to be brave, innovative, and creative in defining our future way of working.”