Hiring, Upskilling, and Retaining Quality Talent for Clinical Trials

Clinical Researcher—November 2019 (Volume 33, Issue 9)


Rocco Raffo; Taylor Crook


The U.S. life sciences sector in 2019 continues to be a leading driver of significant economic gains for the country, representing 2.1 million jobs across 82,300 companies last year. Buoyed by strong spending on research and development, the rise of biopharmaceuticals, and the increased healthcare needs of an aging population, the industry is taking advantage of the momentum built up over the past decade. This growth has led to an increased demand for clinical trials staff, which can be difficult to fulfill in today’s labor market.

How do employers ensure they’re making quality hires while controlling costs and supporting the complex, heavily regulated, long-term process of clinical trials? We offer recommendations to mitigate three critical challenges facing employers: finding qualified candidates, overcoming the skills gap, and increasing retention.

The Industry Landscape

First, a little perspective on the industry. Globally, there are more than 312,000 open clinical trials, up from nearly 83,000 in 2009 (an increase of more than 275%). This aggressive growth has also driven additional merger and acquisition activity, the expanded use of functional service providers and contract research organizations, and even more funding and investment. In the first quarter of 2019, at least 30 life sciences companies announced new efforts such as expansions, new locations, increased funding, and new trial and product launches.

The talent shortage has forced many employers to pay more to compete with other companies seeking the same talent, driving wages up dramatically, which is painful in the short term and unsustainable in the long term. “Life sciences industry wages are higher and growing faster, on average, than those for the overall economy,” according to JLL. “Median wage for life sciences occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, was more than 70% higher than the national average of all other occupations.”

Finding Qualified Candidates

The twin challenges of a limited and expensive talent pool may threaten growth in the life sciences sector. The tension between supply and demand has clinical trial sponsors experiencing slower “time-to-hire” processes and higher turnover, both of which have negative effects on productivity, timelines, and progress.

One approach employers can consider is being more flexible with talent experience minimums. The industry has recently begun to realize the unintended consequences of its overemphasis on the experience requirement; companies are increasingly investing in people with a certain degree of competencies as opposed to a specific number of years in the profession.

The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP), for example, has begun collaborating with various organizations to promote the elimination of the “arbitrary” requirement for entry-level clinical research associates (CRAs) to have two years of monitoring experience, which has nearly “eliminated the CRA pipeline and resulted in an ongoing shortage of new entrants to become CRAs.” ACRP contends the industry focus should be on developing “clear descriptions of core competencies and skillset expectations [that] will benefit both employees and supervisors.”

Overcoming the Skills Gap

The key is finding great people. If you’re recruiting high-quality candidates, you are more likely to succeed in training new hires on the specific needs of each workplace.

Two vital skill sets—one for clinical research coordinators (CRCs), who organize the research lab and interact with study participants, and one for the aforementioned CRAs, who visit clinical trial sites to monitor compliance with Good Clinical Practice guidelines—are in especially high demand.

CRCs need to be extremely organized and comfortable moving from task to task. They need to work at a high level with both data and people, navigating strict guidelines for patient eligibility criteria, monitoring and reporting results, and increasing awareness of clinical trials. They have a critical responsibility to ensure compliance and avoid risk. They need to be tech-savvy in order to work in multiple systems.

CRAs also need to be able to comb through reams of technical medical data, with a focus on identifying and addressing any potential problems. They need very sharp critical thinking skills and the ability to travel to various research sites.

Because of these factors, there are other jobs that prepare workers well for a switch to CRC and CRA careers. Consider recruiting from other health-related positions, including:

  • Radiation technicians
  • Phlebotomists
  • Medics
  • Medical assistants
  • Licensed practice nurses

In the future, as upskilling becomes more commonplace in helping to build the talent supply, we may also find employees outside the life sciences industry who have transferrable skills and competencies. Especially as life sciences becomes more automated, we may look to other industries such as banking and finance to find additional candidates who have skills in critical thinking, analysis, multitasking, risk aversion, and customer care.

Double Down on Retention Strategies

Boosting retention is always a good idea, but the current labor market makes it even more crucial. Upskilling—training and advancement practices that help workers learn new skills and take on new responsibilities—has gained increased interest from companies navigating today’s tight hiring market, and with good reason. It’s a long-term view that ensures your employees have the skills needed to lead you into the future and assist with your company transformation. Identify the skills that will be most valuable in the future and provide the training and technology-enabled learning that could help them, such as digital skills and/or product development.

It sounds simplistic, but implementing consistent and relatively frequent performance reviews also goes a long way toward keeping employees engaged and on track. Employees want to know where they stand in the organization and opportunities for improvement, and they don’t want to wait a year to find out. In addition to weekly or monthly meetings, consider “feedback in the moment,” which is a great way to quickly reinforce good behavior and address negative behavior.

For many workers in life sciences, the most important driver of satisfaction is feeling valued; knowing that their work is contributing to the company and to society. They want to be involved in something that really helps people. Participating in breakthrough research or helping a new medication or treatment get to market where it could cure illnesses or even save lives is a powerful motivator.

This is a key component of an organization’s employee value proposition (EVP). However, company leaders also need to ensure their EVP aligns with their brand, so employees can select a company that aligns with what they are looking for. Although it may seem as if all candidates might prefer to work in a large, well-known company, some candidates might prefer a small, more hands-on atmosphere that will grant them additional opportunities to make their mark and get more responsibility.


As they struggle to fill critical positions in a timely way, employers may be tempted to choose expediency over quality. However, any missteps in compliance risks compromising patient safety, draining the budget, and harming companies’ reputations. For employers and staffing partners, that means balancing sometimes-competing goals:

  • Quality
  • Volume
  • Time
  • Cost

The cost of disruption cannot be overstated; people’s lives depend on drug trials. Any staffing gaps can impact the lives of patients.

Successfully building and retaining a high-performing workforce demands a future-oriented mindset. Clinical trials and drug development are costly; you want to make sure you’re considering all key factors in how you approach your hiring, upskilling, and retention strategy.

Rocco Raffo is Executive Director for Life Sciences with Aerotek in Sacramento, Calif.

Taylor Crook is Director of Business Development and Strategic Sales with Aerotek in Charleston, S.C.