The challenge in retaining pharmacovigilance talent

The challenge in retaining pharmacovigilance talent

What more can life sciences firms do to hang on to restless pharmacovigilance talent, as their most valued employees crave broader experience?

At a recent industry event – the FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference in London – there was a lot of talk about the challenge of retaining talent in life sciences, not least in safety and regulatory fields. This is particularly the case as younger professionals’ ambitions for a broad base of experience conflict with companies’ needs to hang onto the expertise they have invested in.

The challenge is acute in safety/quality and regulatory areas, where companies’ ability to achieve and retain the optimum depth of skills and experience is continuously threatened by employees’ ambitions to build rounded CVs, and keep their work interesting – by trying out a range of roles.

The issue appears to be global, too. More modest-sized biotechnology companies find themselves particularly affected, unable to match the salaries and ‘on-paper’ benefits of the global pharmaceutical giants. Too often, these smaller firms are giving new graduates a good grounding in pharmacovigilance for instance, only for a larger brand to poach them and capitalise on all that experience.

While filling regulatory roles continues to be a challenge across the industry, recruitment for pharmacovigilance (PV) roles is a particularly acute issue. This is because PV is a moving target: new safety risks are emerging all the time, as are new means of locating and identifying them. PV positions also require applied experience: the ability to understand whether a safety signal is significant or not, amid all the real-world market feedback.

A 2018 survey by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) found that over 45% of respondents rated PV as a high or medium priority for talent attraction/retention. People able to step up to a Qualified Person role are in particularly short supply, a trend which is replicated across Europe.


Fulfilling growing demand for workplace flexibility

Rather than continue to lament the problem, the life sciences industry needs to come up with new and creative ways to foster and hold on to rising talent. For instance, while younger employees may be ambitious for a range of different experiences, they are reputedly less influenced by salary than previous generations.

Freedom to explore, create, innovate and experiment at work are often among their personal priorities, along with the ability to protect their work-life balance – which may mean being able to apply for extended periods off work to fulfil extra-curricular ambitions, work from home, or have more control over their working hours.

This shift in values plays to the strengths of biotechnology firms, which may not be able to match the eye-watering salaries offered by higher-profile brands – but are more agile and dynamic in structure and culture, and better able to offer more flexible terms, as well as the chance to shadow and try out different roles.

In our own company, we had to draw a line and acknowledge that trying to match 20% to 50% salary hikes that larger industry players are offering is unsustainable. Rather than try to meet unrealistic remuneration terms, we focus on fostering a culture that people want to be part of; and offering the chance to work from home – where a larger corporate culture might not allow this.

Balancing the age/maturity of a company’s talent is important, too – so, if Millennials are prone to getting itchy feet within one to two years, there are already experienced senior PV staff to cover any gaps. Balancing the demographics also gives younger professionals the chance to shadow mentors; not just in their own field, but in neighbouring disciplines – to broaden their experience and take advantage of a more holistic opportunity to grow. So if someone comes out of university with a pharmacy degree without being quite sure of the career route they want to take, they have an opportunity to feel their way into different areas before committing to specialisation.


Inviting innovation

Something else that workplace newcomers tend to rate in employers is the ability to make a difference, be heard, and have access to the latest tools and techniques. Smaller firms–biotechnology, or service

providers–can provide more of an entrepreneurial environment: one that fosters innovation, supported by structure. It isn’t just younger members of the team that appreciate this; those in their 40s, who might otherwise find themselves in a career rut, can relish the chance to broaden their horizons, push boundaries and try something new, so that they keep evolving and expanding their own skills and experience.

We have a pot of cash set aside for process improvements and technology-enabled transformation, triggered by ideas from front-line team members. This gives people a sense of inclusion and buy-in, via the ability to see their ideas through. From the automation of international medical literature screening, to speech-enabled case reporting, we have taken these proposals and run with them, which has been thrilling for those responsible and kept them motivated and engaged.

The skills crisis in our industry is unlikely to subside any time soon, but it’s through new thinking that modest-sized organisations will succeed in overcoming talent shortfalls. The other option, of course, is to talk to service partners about how they might help fill any glaring skills gaps, or provide additional opportunities for valued employees to round out their experience.


Alan White is Chief Executive Officer of Arriello. Go to 


Source: Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry: Maintaining the UK’s leading position in life sciences, 2018 study by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)