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Contingent Staffing

Staffing firms match scientific talent with global industry needs while satisfying workers' desire for freedom, flexibility, and mobility.

by Rich Pennock
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Industry insiders in the staffing business are noticing a very quiet but profound change in the way some of the best and brightest scientists, engineers, and technical staff are finding their next jobs. Furthermore, the change is fueled by an endorsement from the laboratories and firms that are providing them with work. The change is toward contingent staffing.

Some of the best and brightest scientists have found contract positions with the help of scientific staffing firms. These positions afford scientists the freedom and flexibility they need to move their careers ahead at their own pace, to build skills in areas important to them, and to work with employers they think are doing the best work. Quite often contract staff  end up as permanent employees because they acquire appropriate experience during their contract employment and develop professional and social relationships within the organization.
Within some companies, full-time positions are being eliminated as budgets are cut and laboratories are
asked to keep costs down. Like most other businesses, the work ebbs and flows as projects proceed through their stages and development cycles progress. Often, good management dictates that it does not make sense to hire a full staff when only a core group is needed and skilled, professional scientists are willing and available to fill in the gaps.
Using contingent staff during peak periods changes the relationship of total staff to the workload, making
the organization more efficient. For example, employers may hire contingent staff to meet surges in business —such as a special drug discovery project involving high-volume screening and synthesis of potential new compounds in order to move to the next phase of evaluation, or to clear the backlog of test samples.
This work style is increasingly attractive to larger numbers of professionals in science and other technical
fields. Many workers, both skilled and unskilled, choose professional independence to traditional employment.
As another example of the changes taking place in laboratory staffing, many scientists work as contingent,
contract, or temporary employees as a way to work with a potential new employer before they are hired on a permanent basis. Many staffing companies will recruit candidates who are looking specifically for contract-to-permanent positions. By working on a contract basis before making a full-time job commitment, employees have a low-risk method of evaluating suitable positions. They also have an opportunity to become immersed in a new corporate culture and to make a sound decision based on more substance than a few impressions during interviews. Likewise, employers can better ensure a good fit between a potential new employee and the laboratory environment where the work is available.
Additionally, companies are looking abroad to bulk up on talent to fill skill shortages, get a quick fix, or
increase intellectual diversity within the organization. For the scientist eager for world travel and international experience, this spells opportunity.
Many countries experiencing an economic boom, such as China and India, are struggling to fill scientific
jobs. They simply don’t have the skilled personnel to do so and are drawing individuals from other countries, such as the United States, where the scientific and technical industries are more mature.
In a recent audit of science, engineering and technology skills, the Australian government painted a disturbing picture that showed the country could be short more than 19,000 science professionals over a five-year period. The demand for highly skilled foreign workers is expected to grow as Australia’s skills crunch worsens.
Many staffing companies have witnessed an increase in scientific and technical companies recruiting from
overseas – particularly biotech companies. Australia, for example, lags behind in areas such as protein and peptide chemistry. Food and pharma are among other sectors of Australian industry hiring from abroad.
Countries with high levels of investment but shallow talent pools frequently recruit from outside their borders. For example, Ireland, which has huge investments and continues to build new companies, cannot attract candidates to Dublin when job seekers find London and Paris more desirable.
Switzerland, on the other hand, has always been a popular destination for both investments and workers. Low taxes and high salaries attract some of the world’s best scientists to work in the pharma industry and start-up biotech firms.
Two- and three-year assignments used to be the norm for overseas assignments, but times are changing, making it very different from even a decade ago. People are moving across the borders for shorter-term, immediate-need assignments. These “just-in-time” expatriates are in and out, sometimes over a period of weeks or months, in order to meet specific technical needs and tight deliverables.
The type of work for these short term assignments can vary substantially, from complex single tasks like bringing a process online or setting up a database, to “SWAT teams” of experts that will spend from six to nine months unraveling a product failure.
But these assignments can turn into long-term relocations if overseas work fits. Senior scientists with a niche skill set in bioinformatics or pharmacovigilance, for example, can find themselves setting up new laboratories or  departments, staffing them with local talent, and then moving on to the next assignment.
China is one of the fastest-growing destinations for many high-end professionals, due to the rapid growth in its economy. But India, Singapore, and Japan are also aggressively recruiting short- and medium-term talent. Western Europe and North America remain common destinations for relocations. While some of these companies are filling major skills vacuums, others are looking to improve their international profiles.
Experienced regulatory affairs specialists, pharmacists, and medical writers are in hot demand. The majority of global companies need people who have dealt with the regulatory authorities in various countries and who know multiple languages.
Finding the right person for the job is never an easy task. But some countries are managing to turn brain drains into brain gains and feed their industries by attracting highly skilled talent to their countries.