Q&A: A look at the contract R&D job market

FierceBiotech recently spoke with Peter Ferguson (pictured), the president of health & life sciences at staffing firm Yoh Services. The company fills contract R&D positions, including slots for scientists, biologists, biochemists, chemists, as well as clinical service jobs. Ferguson gave us his thoughts on the 2009 job market, as well as some insight into what to expect in 2010.

FierceBiotech: What changes did you observe in the job market in 2009?

Ferguson: The market started out okay in the beginning of 2009, but the market quickly dropped off in the first and second quarters because of the economic crisis. Even companies with a solid financial status experienced a slow-down in job demand, and we didn't see an up-take in contract jobs until about September.   

FB: Which areas of the biopharma industry are doing the most hiring?

Ferguson: Smaller biotech companies are hiring, but Big Pharma companies are still the biggest players. They've invested heavily in their pipelines, and they are still the biggest game in town when it comes down to it. Among the major pharma companies, most, if not all, are hiring contract R&D workers right now. There's not as much permanent hiring going on, but that could change in the next year or so. Typically we see an uptick on the contract side for about a year or so after a slow-down, and permanent hiring will mostly likely pick up after that.

FB: How did last year's mega-mergers and smaller buyouts affect the market?

Ferguson: In the 30, 60 or 90 days following a big merger, we usually notice a slow-down in the company's demand for contractors as the company focuses on reorganizing itself. That inevitably creates a backlog of work that needs to get done, which is when the company turns to a staffing agency to bring in help. That's why we saw increased demands for contractors in the second half of 2009.

FB: Following layoffs last year, have you had an excess of applicants for jobs?

Ferguson: In most cases, we're hiring for specific skill sets, so we don't take any and all comers. Applicants who are interested in our jobs are usually a pretty good match. For those who have the skills, we generally have enough good jobs available to meet the demand.

FB: In which areas of the industry are there the most opportunities?

Ferguson: We've seen a marked increase in the demand for biologics and vaccines research staff. Those areas are the ones that are really doing a lot of hiring. In particular, candidates with specialized manufacturing experience and various biology degrees are being hired the most. That's not to say companies are only interested in staffing biologic and vaccine programs, but that's where the greatest interest is right now.

FB: What do you expect the market to be like in 2010?

Ferguson: So far we're busy, and I don't really see any change. If the market is healthy and everything goes well, we might see some permanent hiring taking place at the end of 2010, but the contract model is strong right now.

FB: Is there any advice you can offer job seekers?

Ferguson: Job hunters need to have a concise resume that explains their capabilities. Additionally, they need to be flexible in terms of travel. Due to the clustered nature of the industry, candidates serious about finding a job need to be willing to relocate to where the jobs are. And positions move fast. A candidate could be interviewing within 24 to 48 hours of a job being posted, and offers are often made shortly after that.