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August 4, 2022

Rough diamonds: hiring Gen Z to become future clinical trial experts

Millennials and Gen Z can bring in fresh ideas but time and investment from hiring companies is required.

By Urtė Fultinavičiūtė

Flipping through pages of résumés from young people for entry level roles is a daunting task for any company—while such applicants may bring in loads of enthusiasm, they are thin on experience. There are no degrees that spell out clinical research as a clear career trajectory, making it tough for sponsors or CROs to find young professionals with the potential to be future clinical trial experts. 

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There is also the generational divide to contend with. Millennials and Generation Z, specifically ones born in the 1990s, are turned off by the notion of the workplace grind culture. Now, young people prioritise flexible working arrangements and strive for a healthy work/life balance.

But there is no denying the sector needs new recruits to address the anticipated rise of retirement rates among clinical trial experts down the line. Young professionals’ energy can bring new perspectives, especially in a sector that is defined by necessary but rigid frameworks. When the clinical trial sponsor finds a young professional who “gets it”—it can indeed be like finding a diamond in the rough.

Jobs available but Gen Z entry not clear

If a young professional wants to get into clinical trials, a straightforward way to find an entry-level role is via searching employment websites. On Indeed.com, there are 285 active entry-level clinical research job listings in the UK and 494 in the US. The roles range from being an assistant statistician to translation coordinator for CROs or sponsors such as ICON, IQVIA, Medpace, or Pfizer.

To enter the clinical trials sector, the basic requirement is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in life sciences. According to a 2021 report, the number of medical graduates in OECD countries increased from 93,000 in 2000 to 149,000 in 2019.

But even with online listings and even if a young professional is interested in getting into the sector, it’s not so easy to find the door to get in. In talks with students from different levels of education, Ryan Leahy, vice president of research at healthcare event management company Phacilitate, says that young people don’t know how to enter the industry due to lack of inroads and networking opportunities.

Ryan Leahy, vice president of research at Phacilitate

Some employers are also asking for relevant professional experience, which not all recent graduates will have. For example, one job advertisement shows a CRO is seeking an entry-level research consultant with a bachelor’s degree with up to two years of relevant experience. Meanwhile, another CRO’s entry-level regulatory submission coordinator job advertisement is looking for candidates with experience in starting clinical trials. Expecting years of industry experience for entry level positions needs to change, Leahy says.

Lack of awareness

There are also potential candidates who are not even aware clinical research is a career path. And how to get into the sector isn’t that obvious, adds Jack Rhodes, senior manager of global clinical affairs at MedTech company Terumo Blood and Cell Technologies (BCT).

The lack of awareness brings lack of knowledge about how the industry works. “It is not a vacation to work in this field,” says Dr Bruce Levine, immediate past president and chair of the strategic advisory council at the International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy (ISCT). It takes a lot of dedication and a certain sense of selflessness to work in clinical research for others’ health, he explains.

Dr Bruce Levine, immediate past president and chair of the strategic advisory council at ISCT

Clinical trial work, especially in CROs, sometimes requires a 24/7 commitment and engagement outside the normal working hours, says Dr Charles Molta, a consultant for inflammatory diseases in the pharmaceutical industry. “Medical school doesn’t prepare for life in the industry, it only trains for the academia,” he adds.

It should be conveyed to young professionals that working in the clinical trials sector benefits the greater good—being a part of a team that finds new therapies for patients in need, and being at the forefront of science, should not be undersold.

One way of spreading awareness about clinical research as a career path is by directly working with universities and organisations working with emerging talents, says Amy Van Kirk, senior director talent acquisition at Parexel. Such collaborations will ensure that there is more than enough interest from students, something that Parexel is not lacking, she adds.

Social media is another way of reaching young people. Companies should improve their social media outreach and have dedicated ambassadors to work with them, Leahy says. “This is a big marketing approach when you are working with emerging talent. It’s different than trying to find a passive candidate at a director level,” Van Kirk adds.

How to choose the right candidate

Entry level candidates are unlikely to have much relevant experience, says Dalip Sethi, scientific affairs director at Terumo BCT. And so, interviews and other tests will be the determining factor.

While it may be obvious, it is worth underscoring that base knowledge and interest in medical product development are important. Organisational skills, project management, and a collaborative personality are valuable as candidates will be working with many different people, Rhodes says. Keenness to learn is another important quality to look for in an entry level position, Sethi notes.

Access is another issue young people face, as not everyone has a driver’s license or ability to move to different places, Leahy says. Companies need to factor these pitfalls in when seeking to hire for entry level jobs.

Credit: Shutterstock

Even before there are any entry level jobs available, looking for rough diamonds as early as possible can be valuable. Sponsors and CROs need to develop training and development programs, internships, or apprenticeships. There is a need to find who are the right mentors from within the company, how many young professionals they can take on board, and what are the resources available to ensure that any onboarding or training programs are meaningful, Van Kirk explains. “This is a generation that wants to come in and add value immediately.”

Generational differences

The generational divide needs to be addressed head on. A fair compensation is important, although millennials and Gen Z also value ideals. Offering a higher pay for a more intensive work schedule doesn’t mean that they will accept the job offer, Molta says. “The first thing they will ask is if they will have a ‘regular life.’”

Young people want the “work from anywhere lifestyle” so remote positions are attractive, Rhodes says. Certain elements of clinical trials can be decentralised to accommodate remote work, he adds. This opens opportunities to find candidates based anywhere. Role flexibility is attractive, Leahy notes.

Transparency is a core value for the younger generation, Rhodes says. Laying out the possible career path will help to maintain retention and engagement, Van Kirk adds. “It is very important to know what the next steps down the line are, even though they are just starting out,” she notes.

Providing a creative outlet is also a must, also an opportunity for them to find their “authentic” selves, Sethi says. For example, if a company hires a young physician, it should allow the physician to practice one day a week, Molta notes. This can ensure job satisfaction but also bring valuable information about what is happening in practice, he adds.

Benefits of moulding new professionals

What budding clinical trial experts may lack in experience, they compensate for with a fresh eye. “This is a highly regulated industry, and we can’t change that, but a younger person might offer solutions for work efficiency,” Van Kirk explains.

The younger generation also tends to be more tech-savvy, something that more senior staff might not be, Leahy says. The number of job adverts seeking experts on decentralised clinical trials (DCT) are breaking records, drawing pause if there are enough professionals to fill these roles. The role of clinical research associate (CRA) has changed over the pandemic to be more data driven, Van Kirk notes. This resulted in recent graduates who have a combination of life science degree and data analytics skills being attractive candidates.

If the cut and polish of rough diamonds is done right, young professionals are likely to stay for a long time, Levine says. “It is rewarding for the more senior people to see how bright these people are, young as they are. Our mission is to train the next generation of professionals.”

Takeaways:

  • Finding entry level opportunities can be as simple as browsing job websites, but some employers desire work experience that many fresh graduates might lack.
  • Getting into clinical research as a career path is not obvious for young people. Sponsors and CROs should work directly with universities and organisations to find potential candidates with the aptitude to flourish in the industry.
  • Employers should look for certain types of skills to compensate for inexperience. Young employees bring fresh and new ideas, as well as technology-related skills.

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