Finding the Best and the Brightest: Getting a Leg Up on the Race for Talent
Historically, the biopharmaceutical industry has successfully been able to attract top-level talent by offering job security and competitive compensations, but have the motivations of job seekers pivoted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing demographic? Anirban Basu, PhD, MS, Derek Tang, PhD, MS, Kevin McGrath, and Krystal Huey, PharmD, MS, shared their thoughts on the current landscape of preparing, attracting, and retaining HEOR talent.
Typing the acronym “HEOR” in any of the top job search engines will easily return dozens of pages of job posts in health economics and outcomes research (HEOR). From managers to consultants to statisticians, economists, and directors, the abundance of available jobs clearly indicates that the field is on the rise. As national governments and other payers across the globe gradually shift their focus to patient outcome measures and cost-effectiveness of products in the increasingly complex therapeutic world, demand for HEOR professionals in all stages of their careers has been skyrocketing.
Industry-Sponsored Fellowships Open Doors
In the beginning, the talent in the HEOR space was acquired from biostatistics and epidemiology roles and attracted anyone with a health services research background and intellectual curiosity about the newly emerging discipline, explains Kevin McGrath, Pharmaceutical Recruitment Specialist, Penfield Search Partners. However, as the field expanded, the career paths have shifted accordingly attracting individuals with a very particular skillset. Currently the most traditional path to an entry-level career in HEOR involves obtaining a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree followed by an industry-sponsored post-doctoral fellowship, which often includes a didactic component in an academic setting or a PhD in HEOR, health services research, and pharmacy administration. Krystal Huey, PharmD, MS, a recent HEOR graduate now working at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, adds that this is likely because, “PharmD programs are very clinical. They introduce you to the drug development pipeline and help you to understand the healthcare system and how the pharmacists and the providers fit into that system.”
Those are undoubtedly tremendously important skills to have in order to succeed in this space, but so are the technical capabilities focused on economics, outcomes research, and epidemiology. After all, these competencies are in the name of the discipline itself. Anirban Basu, PhD, MS the Stergachis Family Endowed Director of the CHOICE Institute and Professor of Health Economics, School of Pharmacy, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, points out that to become a good HEOR specialist, it is not enough to be able to do modeling and cost analysis. You need to have expertise in economics and epidemiological intuition, associated research methods, and their applications, which are mostly acquired through didactic training.
“Critical thinking and the ability to ask the right question are probably the two most important skills you can have. But it’s not like you learn them in school.” — Krystal Huey, PharmD, MS
Since it would be nearly impossible for an academic program to cover every skill employers desire to see in the potential candidates, program directors often seek out informative resources. ISPOR has created a convenient HEOR competency framework, which is an extensive guide listing 41 competencies and their importance in the overall HEOR field as well as relevance in the day-to-day job.1 This is an extremely useful tool when planning the curriculum of academic programs because it allows instructors to align industry requirements with the program capabilities. Basu adds that whenever their program undergoes a review, the ISPOR competency framework is always a part of the picture in curriculum review and development to ensure that the students are obtaining skills that are highly valued by the recruiters and managers.
Soft Skills Development Is Key
While being well versed in epidemiological methodologies undoubtedly is important, Derek Tang, PhD, MS, Senior Director, Bristol Myers Squibb, emphasizes that the skills that they are more often seeking out in the candidates revolve around communication, passion towards the field, ability to deal with ambiguity, and internal drive to succeed. “The combination of these qualities also reflects how eager you are to learn new skills, whether it involves health policy landscape, health technology assessment aspects, or any other HEOR methodologies.” These are the type of skills that an academic program will not necessarily prepare you for. As Huey points out, “Critical thinking and the ability to ask the right question are probably the two most important skills you can have. But it’s not like you learn them in school.” She suggests that these are the types of skills that can be acquired by working or being continuously exposed to change and adaptation in a professional environment, thus putting students who do not pursue fellowships in disadvantaged positions.
"As national governments and other payers across the globe gradually shift their focus to patient outcome measures and cost-effectiveness of products in the increasingly complex therapeutic world, demand for HEOR professionals in all stages of their careers has been skyrocketing."
The issue around soft-skill development intensified once academic programs switched to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most students lost their day-to-day interactions with their peers and academic advisors and missed out on networking and professional opportunities. That is, in fact, the main reason pointed out by Basu as to why their program is not considering online instruction as a long-term possibility. He points out, “There is so much more than just attending classes. There are conversations with faculty, seminars, and for our PhD students, their dissertation development. All these things are very important. Additionally, we provide one-on-one mentoring and a lot of leadership opportunities for our students. You can’t get that in a virtual environment. You get that in personal interactions.”
Flexibility Links to Opportunities
Similar to the academic programs, most biopharmaceutical companies are expecting their workforce to return to the office at some point in the future. These expectations vary across the industry in terms of degree of flexibility and phased approaches to the full-time return. There are lessons to be learned from the time we have all spent working remotely and some of the adaptations might be beneficial even in the postpandemic world. McGrath points out that on a positive note, many processes such as recruiting and onboarding have become more streamlined. What was once a gruesome scheduling and planning process for both the recruiters and the candidates can now be arranged within a very short period of time. “However, the downside is that it is a lot more difficult to gain that connectivity with people when you are not sitting in the same room with them. Additionally, you are not able to visit the company and walk the halls. You know, there is a vibe, there is this energy to a place that is meaningful for assessing cultural fit,” he said.
"Now that the job seekers have greater flexibility than ever to pick a preferred working arrangement, companies will have to be agile in their structural decision making to attract the right talent."
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that millennials now compose the majority of the workforce, and their priorities might not always align with those of previous generations. As job seekers are expected to go through increasingly more rigorous selection criteria and interview processes regardless of their experience level, they too expect more from their employers in return. Many applicants tend to value development opportunities, work–life balance, and the company’s societal engagements above their compensation package when it comes to decision making.
With the apparent shortage of highly skilled professionals in health economics-related areas and the changing demographic, some companies might have to rethink their hiring approaches in order to remain at the top of their game. They might have to make flexibility their top priority in employee acquisition and retention. Tang pointed out that at Bristol Myers Squibb, for example, they actively work on creating various development opportunities for their employees, including working on their business needs and networking, as well as involving them in projects in which they are most interested.
"HEOR programs admit only a handful of students each year and while the success rate of placing students in permanent roles at the end of their program remains extremely high, this could be in part an indicator that the demand is exceeding the supply."
Creating such streamlined talent development pipelines can be very beneficial in the longer run. Retention failure not only decreases an overall company’s productivity, but it also costs on average 6 to 9 months’ worth of salary to replace the lost employee.2,3 McGrath pointed out that during the pandemic the retention rates have increased, and that people seem to have become more selective when making a move. He also added that this might, in fact, be a good thing, because just before the pandemic, the emerging trend was to change jobs every 1.5 to 2 years, which could be beneficial in terms of soft-skill development but not necessarily in growing a specific knowledge pool and becoming an expert in a particular area. Huey and McGrath both point out that it will be very interesting to see how the landscape shifts and the choices that job seekers make once everyone begins returning to the office.
Tying It All Together
In general, HEOR programs admit only a handful of students each year and while the success rate of placing students in permanent roles at the end of their program remains extremely high, this could be in part an indicator that the demand is exceeding the supply. Creating this extreme competition for fellowships does, of course, help companies attract top-level talent, but it does not address the increasing demand for entry- and mid-level professionals. Now that the job seekers have greater flexibility than ever to pick a preferred working arrangement, companies will have to be agile in their structural decision making to attract the right talent. As Tang pointed out, “The only thing that doesn’t really change is the change itself.”
1. Pizzi L, Onukwugha E, Corey R, Albarmawi H, Murray J. Competencies for Professionals in Health Economics and Outcomes Research: The ISPOR Health Economics and Outcomes Research Competencies Framework. Value Health. 2020;23(9):1120-1127.
2. Center for American Progress. There are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees. Published November 12, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2021. https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CostofTurnover.pdf.
3. USI Insurance Services. Cost of Employee Turnover. Published April 9, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2021. https://mnwi.usi.com/Resources/Resource-Library/Resource-Library-Article/ArtMID/666/ArticleID/782/Cost-of-employee-turnover - :~:text=The Society for Human Resource,in recruiting and training costs.
About the Author
Ilze Abersone, BS, MS, is a research consultant for Vital Statistics Consulting, Hoboken, NJ, USA.