Buyer's Market

Current employment options favor companies as well as less-experienced workers.

Jun 30, 2006
Betsy Alberty

The biotech industry has yet to recover fully from the boom and then bust of 2000-2001. Venture investment in biotech was $4.34 billion in 2000 but then dropped off for several years. Overall, it has started to pick up again, registering $4.18 billion in 2004 and $3.77 billion in 2005, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers MoneyTree survey. Investment in the medical-device sector has also recently seen a reversal of a downward trend ($2.50 billion invested in 2000 followed by a drop, and rising again since 2004, registering $2.15 billion in 2005). Hiring follows investments by 6-12 months, however, and as a recruiter, I did not see a significant increase in hiring activity until late 2004-2005, when hiring focused on the growing areas of clinical and regulatory positions. Overall, hiring is still a buyer's (i.e., company's) market.

One result is a steadily increasing pool of highly experienced candidates who are being told that they are "too senior" for the positions at hand. Recently, a candidate described the current hiring market with an interesting analogy. During interviews, he had the feeling that companies were not as much interested in hiring people as in adopting them because of the extremely rigorous - some would say overly so - nature of the hiring process used today. His experience is reflected by comments of many people who have 20+ years of experience and find themselves suddenly in the employment market because of restructurings or acquisitions. There are far more job openings for people with two to 10 years of experience, presumably reflecting companies that are still cautiously keeping their "burn rates" at rock-bottom levels. For candidates who find themselves the recipient of numerous "too senior" comments, it's time to take courses to provide credentials in a parallel job track, such as those requiring regulatory or clinical skills, and to network extensively and volunteer in local groups with specific industry focus.

The market has also favored companies in compensation packages. Many candidates who had relatively high base salaries in the late 1990s now tell me that they are interested in positions with equivalent or lower base salaries. Candidates seem to be less focused on stock options as an incentive to join a company, most preferring to opt for financial stability. When there is negotiating room for employees, it is typically found in a sign-on bonus or in negotiating an accelerated review process. Candidates who get multiple offers generally have experience in the two to 10 years' range.

Moreover, recent merger and acquisition patterns have resulted in few candidates looking at companies as long-term (more than five years) employment opportunities. The exceptions are top-tier employers such as Genentech and Amgen, which are less likely to be acquisition targets and more likely to promote, train, and develop employees from within before hiring externally. Larger companies can offer supplemental retraining to retain highly valued employees by offering them lateral moves with retraining as an alternative to being downsized.

As top-tier company expansions occur, smaller local companies have a difficult time retaining key employees. The cachet of working for a top-100 company that is willing to invest in and develop employees is difficult to overcome for a smaller, leaner competitor. Higher pay and option incentives are two of the few weapons in a smaller company's arsenal that can circumvent "brain drain" to a top-tier company.

Savvy employers will look for new employees in recently acquired or restructured firms, where they are likely to find candidates unsure about future prospects with new management structures. They are also likely to find the silver lining in a pattern of small companies being acquired: The employees are likely to be highly productive with a strong entrepreneurial bent who would thrive best at a new, smaller company. The advantage still lies with the company, though in this case the smaller company may have something to offer that can't be matched by a larger employer.

Betsy Alberty heads the biotech and life science recruiting firm BioEquities Recruiting in Mill Valley, Calif.