ShortTerm Science

In recent years, escalating costs and increased global competition have led pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to start using contractors–temporary employees who work for a contracted period of time–in jobs previously held by permanent employees. The demand for contractors is increasing at many pharma and biotech companies, especially in product development, clinical research, manufacturing, and medical communications.

Permanent employment remains the primary goal for most job seekers, but contract employment offers an alternative that some scientific employees may find appealing.

Contract staffing agencies

The use of “contracted help” was established for lower skilled workers in the early 20th century. It expanded in the 1990s to include engineers, computer scientists, and software developers. It wasn’t until recently that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies got in on the act. The change was a response not just to cost-cutting strategies but also to the availability of large numbers of highly skilled scientists unable to secure permanent jobs.

Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies work with freelancers–independent business owners who contract directly with companies–but the staffing agency model is much more common, especially among less experienced workers. In this model, workers are formally employed by a staffing agency, a company that specializes in hiring workers and placing them on assignments at client companies. Contract staffing agencies assume administrative and payroll responsibilities, but client-company managers oversee the work.

In recent years, staffing agencies specializing in scientific employees have emerged (see sidebar). Several contract-employment agencies with experience in other fields–such as Kelly, Joulé, and Yoh–have entered the science-employment business.

The entry of more staffing agencies and the growing demand for contract employees has led to improvements in contract-employment terms. Most assignments now last from 3 months to 2 years. Many staffing agencies offer competitive hourly rates and generous benefits, including health care, retirement plans, and holiday and sick pay. In some cases, agency benefit packages rival those offered to regular corporate employees. Aquent, a California-based staffing agency, offers a 401(k) plan with employer-matched contributions, holiday pay, and even longevity pay and bonuses.

That 2-year maximum contract term is a result of U.S. labor law. Although it may seem like a disadvantage, it has an upside: Highly valued long-term contractors are often offered permanent employment at client companies after, or during, their contract period.

The “temp” advantage

Typically, companies hire contract employees when there is an immediate, perhaps temporary, need for scientific labor or technical expertise. Because a company’s commitment to a contractor is short-term, employers don’t take on the long-term costs that come with hiring a permanent employee. Contract workers can begin working in a matter of days instead of the weeks or months it typically takes to recruit and hire permanent employees.

Consequently, contractors allow companies to respond to changing business conditions that may require rapid up- or downsizing. “It’s all about staffing flexibility,” says Eric Celidonio, a recruiter who works for Altus Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also, many companies have found that the judicious use of contractors can help minimize the “burnout” and increase the retention of permanent staff by reducing workloads.

Scientists choose to become contractors to improve their technical skills, to determine which company is the best fit before seeking a permanent position, or to accommodate family situations and personal needs. Contracting is ideal for people who are reentering the work force, contemplating a career change, or, for whatever reason, don’t want to make a long-term commitment to an employer. And unlike permanent employees, who often work long hours with no additional compensation, contractors get paid for overtime. “When I worked full-time, I was rarely compensated for overtime,” says Jack Goldenberg, a former ad-agency creative director who now works as a contract copywriter for a pharmaceutical company. “Now, I don’t mind working extra hours because I get paid for overtime and my hard work is appreciated.”

Because hiring a contract worker is a lower risk for a company than hiring a long-term employee, contracting jobs are often available when permanent opportunities are scarce. “Everyone has to eat,” says Charles Bloomer, a veteran contract medical writer.

Sometimes, accepting a contract position is what an employee needs to jump-start a career. This was true for Lauren DiGenarro, who landed a permanent clinical-research position following a 4-month contract at a pharmaceutical company. “The fact that I worked for a pharmaceutical company, even for a short while, is what sold my current employer on me,” says DiGenarro.

And some people just like the flexibility. “I get to meet new people, and it gives me the flexibility to explore my other interests,” Bloomer says. “If I don’t like where I am working, I can always move on to the next assignment.”

Contract Staffing Agencies and Their Areas of Specializations

The right stuff

Contract workers are expected to land on their feet at a new company, so even more than permanent employees, they need specialized scientific or technical knowledge in disciplines in demand.

But it’s also important not to be pigeonholed. Contractors who work with agencies must be flexible in the types of assignments that they are willing to accept. Contractors, says Tricia Manley, a senior recruiter for the staffing company Lab Support, “must be willing to accept assignments for different but related work.” Contractors also must be able to work independently and as part of a multidisciplinary team. And like all employees, contractors need to be amiable, collegial, and professional while on the job.

What about work experience? It’s a plus but not a requirement. “We hire bachelor’s, master’s, and even Ph.D.-level contract scientists with little or no industrial experience as long as they have the required technical expertise,” Celidonio says.

The downside of contract work

Despite the advantages, life as a contractor has its challenges. “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” laments Bloomer, the medical writer. Another drawback is the lack of job security. Amy Blithe, a contractor who works as a clinical study coordinator, “came to work one day, learned that results from a trial that I worked on were not encouraging, and by 5:00 p.m. I was unemployed,” she says.

DiGenarro, the former contractor, finds “the stability offered by permanent employment comforting. My productivity is better, I do not feel like an outsider, and my colleagues are invested in me because they know I will be here for a while.”

A major disadvantage for some contractors is that although the situation has improved a lot in recent years, some contract employees still don’t get health care and retirement benefits. Contractors may be forced to purchase their own benefits (which are costly) or to rely on the benefits of spouses or domestic partners. Some contractors may even have to work without health insurance.

Where are the opportunities?

There seems to be a shift toward contracting in the staffing practices of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. “The future opportunities for contractors are enormous,” says Joe Tringali, an independent recruiter who specializes in pharmaceutical and biotechnology job placements. The use of contractors in research and development is waning, he says, but “there is a growing need for contractors in the areas of quality control, manufacturing, and clinical development.”

“We are in dire need of contractors with expertise in protein biochemistry, analytical chemistry, quality control, quality assurance, and manufacturing,” says Celidonio, the Altus Pharmaceuticals recruiter. “I can’t find candidates to fill manufacturing, quality systems, and medical writing jobs that have been open at the company for over a year.” Celidonio and Manley both say medical communications and marketing are hot fields. “There is an enormous upside in medical and regulatory affairs writing,” Bloomer, the medical writer, agrees.

Clinical operations and clinical-trials management are also hot. “Right now, contractors represent about 50% of the clinical staff at the company where I am currently working,” says Blithe. “This use of contractors in clinical operations appears to be an industrywide trend. I suspect that the use of contractors will continue to grow because it offers companies the staffing flexibility they need to react to constantly changing clinical situations.”

Contract work isn’t for everyone, and the opportunities it offers may not last forever. But it’s an important and expanding sector of the labor market, and the advantages it offers companies and some job seekers are likely to persist.

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