Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Winning the Talent War

New and multi-faceted hiring strategies lab managers need in their arsenal.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Winning the Talent War

Since the end of the recession, the war for talent has raged anew in some laboratories. Laboratories in the petroleum, minerals, biotechnology, and other industries are actively recruiting experienced scientists, engineers, and technicians. However, simply screening large numbers of résumés will not enable your laboratory to win the talent war and hire the best candidates. This is because the war for talent is not the result of an overall skills shortage but rather a shortage of job candidates having the right combination of advanced skill sets laboratory managers require.

When advertising positions, guide candidates to your firm’s website, where they are required to answer a series of questions pertinent to the job opening. Then look only at those candidates who were able to answer every question. By using wellchosen questions, you will winnow down the candidate pool to those individuals who have the combination of skills you need. You could also throw in some behavioral questions to help weed out candidates.

Job openings posted on the major job boards are likely to prompt hundreds of responses, including many from individuals unqualified for the specific opening you are advertising. (Individuals post in the hopes that your laboratory also has other openings for which they are qualified.) Instead, advertise openings on your firm’s website and on specialized websites focused on science job openings, such as the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s),,, and others.

Clearly define the skills, experience, and personal characteristics you are looking for before beginning to screen résumés. Another challenge for human resources representatives and hiring managers is that job hunters attempt to game the system by including in their résumés keywords taken from job postings. This can add greatly to the number of false positives (“hits”) that occur when searching résumé databanks for particular skill sets.

Find passive candidates. These are individuals who are not actively job hunting but would make good candidates. Use online professional networks such as LinkedIn to find them. Observing how they interact with others on discussion boards can give you insights into their professional behavior, work ethic, and how they interact with others.

Since the recession began, priorities for hiring new employees have changed. With the slow economic recovery, these new priorities remain the same. Just because the pace of hiring scientists and engineers remains lower than at prerecession levels does not mean that new employee hiring is any less critical. Talent recruitment and management remain important priorities for companies and organizations in both developed and emerging economies. However, while the priority has remained high, expectations for new employee accomplishments have risen. This is as true for laboratory hiring as it is for any another sector of economic activity.

Employer expectations

“Today employers are no longer looking for a great brain and a world of potential,” comments David G. Jensen, a recruiter specializing in the biotechnology industry. “They’re looking for that one CV that lists the skills they need right now—not after six months of training.” Jensen calls this “pinpoint hiring.”1

Employer ExpectationsMy experience as an ACS career consultant has led me to conclude that the same is true for laboratories in other industries. Employers expect new hires to begin making meaningful contributions almost immediately. No longer are they allowed months to master responsibilities and “learn the ropes.” These higher expectations have changed the patterns of hiring, particularly for scientists. For decades many laboratories, particularly those at large companies, preferred to hire newly graduated scientists rather than seasoned professionals. New graduates were presumed to have mastered the new technologies in their field and the latest in information technology. Operating under this assumption, employers were willing to grant new hires time to master the complexities of working in an industrial R&D environment.

This is no longer the case. In some countries, particularly the United States and Germany, companies prefer to hire older, even previously retired people to provide the talent they need. Familiar with industrial workplace culture, these people are better able to rapidly begin making contributions to meeting their new employers’ goals. According to a June 2012 study by recruiting/ outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas (CG&C), those people 55 years of age and older accounted for 69% of the total U.S. job growth since January 1, 2010: 2,998,000 jobs.2 The reason? “A seasoned candidate who brings a wide variety of skills and experience to the table is going to have an advantage over younger candidates. For employers, one experienced candidate is worth two or three younger, greener candidates in terms of the ability to make immediate and meaningful contributions to output and the bottom line,” says CG&C Chief Executive Officer John Challenger. Others have cited an institutional gap between the skills companies need and those being provided by the U.S. educational system.

Pinpoint hiring

Professor Peter Capelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has observed that managers want to hire “people who already have done the exact job they’re applying for.” Instead, Jensen has written, “For years there’s been a big divide between the kind of people companies want to hire and the kind of people they see when they start running ads.1 This makes life difficult for hiring managers, because personnel training budgets have been cut. “In 1979 young workers received an average of two and a half weeks of training. By contrast, a study last year by the consulting firm Accenture found that only 21% of the employees surveyed had received any training at all in the past five years.”

Flexible work schedules and other arrangements can help lure these seasoned specialists to work in your laboratory. These include part-time employment, seasonal employment, opportunities to work out of a home office, and other options not traditionally found in laboratory work environments. A recent survey by Harris Interactive indicates that only 24% of Fortune 1000 companies provide such options. Doing so could give your laboratory a significant advantage in the talent war.

“Almost 38,000 ACS members are more than 60 years of age; they constitute 23% of the membership and are the fastest-growing demographic in the society,” notes George Heinze, chair, ACS Senior Chemists Task Force.3 “More than 18,000 of these members are still working full time. A large number of the others are engaged in part-time work such as consulting, contracting, and teaching.” Many who lost their jobs during the recession remain in the job market. These chemical professionals constitute a large and capable segment of the laboratory workforce that employers can tap. For a variety of reasons, older laboratory professionals have an increased interest in remaining in or rejoining the laboratory workforce.

Other ways to find seasoned employment candidates

Excellent seasoned job candidates often have the skill sets that laboratory managers need plus good judgment in using these skills. There are several ways to narrow down your search for seasoned employment candidates with particular skills. One is to use LinkedIn. Another is to use web-based services that perform candidate searches for you. YourEncore offers employers searches of its database of retired scientists and engineers. Individuals are usually hired on a project-by-project basis, with YourEncore acting as a staffing agency, which is the employer of record and handles salary and benefits administration. Other retiree employment websites include AlumniInTouch, SelectMinds, and RetiredBrains.

One can also take a more traditional route and use a recruiter to identify seasoned employment candidates.

Outsourcing instead of hiring

One strategy to tap the capabilities of seasoned scientists and engineers is not to hire them as employees at all. Instead, consider outsourcing work to seasoned scientists and engineers working as consultants. Seasoned employees are increasingly interested in starting their own businesses. In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, from 1996 to 2011 the number of baby boomers starting businesses increased by nearly 7%, the largest increase among all age groups.

“There is a wide range of individual, economic, and societal benefits for baby boomers starting new businesses,” says William Zinke, 85, founder and president of the Center for Productive Longevity. The ACS has launched its ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative4 to help its members launch their own businesses. Currently there are two programs. The Entrepreneurial Training Program is a partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac program. It offers three programs to meet the needs of members at different stages of their entrepreneurial plans. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re an established entrepreneur looking to optimize your venture’s performance, members can apply to receive a $500 scholarship toward a 30-hour FastTrac course. Companies wishing to help seasoned employees start their own companies and become suppliers of services after their formal retirements could award them scholarships.

In June 2012 the new ACS Entrepreneurial Resources Center enabled approved applicants to support the development and launch of their entrepreneurial plans with free access to all ACS journals and Chemical Abstracts Service’s SciFinder. Successful applicants can also use the professional services of ACS’s legal, marketing, finance, human resources, information technology, and other outside support teams at low or no cost. However, to do so applicants must provide business plans indicating how their nascent businesses will create U.S. jobs for chemical professionals.

Another strategy is to reduce the need to recruit new employees by persuading seasoned employees approaching retirement age to delay full-time retirement by offering flexible work arrangements, such as less-than-fulltime work schedules. Other possible inducements could include a sign-on bonus to work for a specified period past traditional retirement age and appealing duties such as mentoring younger employees. It is important to schedule discussions of these options two or more years in advance of a staff member’s retirement. Given the large-scale staff reductions that have occurred at many laboratories during the recession, it is important to set these discussions in a positive context and make the incentives to delay retirement attractive.

A third strategy to reduce the need to hire additional employees is practicing open innovation5 by licensing technology or acquiring development ideas from other companies. Open innovation is based on the idea that “competitive advantage now often comes from leveraging the discoveries of others,” according to Henry Chesbrough, director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.

Final comments

Old or young, job candidates respond to a workplace that promises to help them cultivate and use their talents. This means that laboratory managers need to develop different and more powerful talent management strategies.

Additional methods of finding qualified candidates are found in reference 6. Practicing several of the approaches discussed above is more effective than is focusing on only one. It seems likely that in the future laboratories will practice several hiring strategies rather than focus primarily on hiring bright young graduates and postdoctoral researchers.