Personnel shortages and experience gaps within the clinical trial industry are leading to a challenging landscape for the global labour market. Based on information from GlobalData’s Jobs Analytics database, demand for clinical research professionals is expected to increase due to a shortage of skilled professionals. This is attributed to continued competition in the labour market, an increasing demand for clinical research professionals in emerging markets, and an ageing population – where experienced clinical staff are not being replaced.
This directly impacts on the critical role of the clinical research associate (CRA). CRAs review patient data at clinical trial sites, so they need to be knowledgeable of industry standards and medical information, as well as Good Clinical Practices (GCP). Good working relationships with trial sites are equally important to ensure studies run smoothly, with sponsors preferring staff that will stay on until the end of the trial, which could be months, or even several years.
If an underqualified CRA – or worse, a fraudulent candidate – is employed, it could compromise relationships at sites and impact data integrity and trial timelines, with the site losing confidence in the company providing the CRA.
Current issues with recruitment
More than half of clinical trials are currently outsourced, with the sector historically relying on full-service CROs. More recently, this paradigm has shifted towards the functional service provider (FSPs) model, which offers external resourcing support for clinical teams while strategic control is maintained by the sponsor.
Dana Durkan is Vice President of Global Recruitment at KPS Life, an FSP with a large network of cross-functional clinical trial professionals. Issues with recruitment can be varied, but three main points have become key, says Durkan: fraudulent credentials, the hybrid workforce, and staff retention. Durkan outlines these three areas of concern, why they matter, and how best to navigate them.
1. Avoiding a fraudulent workforce
With intense competition for jobs, KPS Life has observed a rise in fraudulent applications, which appears to be continuing.
“In 2023, we estimated that approximately 40% of candidates applying to our CRA job openings are fraudulent,” Durkan tells us. “It is a bigger problem than many hiring managers realise, and it’s continuing to be a problem. In former years we found trends of candidates using names of companies that did not exist. Now, the trend has shifted to candidates representing they work for large CROs when in fact sometimes they have not worked with the company at all.”
The solution is multi-layered. Durkan explains that some red flags are obvious, some less so. For example, candidates referencing employment at companies that are no longer viable, or have changed their names since the date given. Or different versions of CVs with sometimes different versions of first and last names, different phone numbers or email and multiple social media accounts.
While some of these red flags can stand out clearly to an experienced recruiter, KPS Life also has a rigorous system in place to weed out any candidate who may be misrepresenting his or her experience.
Firstly, applications are tracked, so any submission of different versions of resumes are saved into the KPS Life ATS (applicant tracking system) can easily be spotted by our experienced recruiting team. Then, a streamlined interview process quickly weeds out candidates who leave any level of uncertainty about his/her background, experience level or education with the screening senior level recruiter. This is followed by screening and ID checks and a two-part video interview process, including technical questions from KPS Life experienced Clinical Operations Managers.
Upon KPS Life recommendation, Clients conduct an interview as well prior to selecting a candidate. Additionally, KPS runs a full background check including comparison of candidate’s resume to jobs entered into the employment application.
Durkan also reveals a few tricks up her sleeve, where experience within the industry is key.
2. A changing workplace dynamic
Many candidates are now seeking a more flexible approach to working, including hybrid or work from home (WFH) environments. Durkan says this hasn’t tremendously affected the recruitment process, as almost everything can be done over video calls, and many roles were already remote, even prior to the pandemic.
Some roles that were hybrid have now shifted to fully remote, while others that were in-office are now hybrid or remote. While some of those shifts that required a return to in-office were initially a little rocky for candidates who did not want to make the office return, things are leveled off on major changes for the most part. She also points out that remote working is 100% feasible within the clinical trials space, and that almost 100% of meetings at KPS Life are video enabled.
For CRAs though, on-site visits are still usually required, says Durkan: “When you have a role such as a CRA, there can be some remote monitoring, but it really depends on the requirement of the protocol. Monitoring on site is still something that most CRAs need to do.”
3. Maintaining a low CRA turnover
Staff turnover is a problem across the industry. Historical expectations that a person will remain with one company for the whole of their career have dissipated. Employees are changing jobs more frequently, in some cases every two to four years.
Strong employee retention is a huge asset to clinical trial research, helping to ensure data integrity, preserve project timelines, and maintain adherence with the clinical trial protocol.
“Anytime there is turnover there is a cost associated with backfilling, training and/or retraining, which can impact the timelines,” says Durkan. “It’s definitely a positive for the service providers and for the clients to keep the turnover as minimal as possible.
“Our retention is very good (88% overall retention rate and 92% retention rate of CRAs globally), and I think that’s down to the fact that we’re very competitive. We want our employees to feel valued and supported. It’s a combination of a competitive salary, benefits, time off and holidays, and having a management team that is approachable, supportive, and available.”
KPS’s unique approach may be key. A small, friendly company, KPS Life believes in good working relationships, treating everyone with respect and compassion, and ensuring that candidates are matched well with employers.
“To establish higher employee retention, companies must strive to become employers of choice,” says Durkan. “Ultimately, we team up with our candidates (turned employees) to make sure assignments align with their own career goals.”
Why sponsors trust KPS Life
Sponsors looking for flexible clinical trial support turn to KPS Life to help them get the right staff on board while always maintaining strategic control of the trial. With KPS vetting their CRAs carefully to ensure they are genuinely qualified and with the right kind of experience for the sponsor, it is no surprise this functional service provider has an impressive retention rate of 90%.
For more information on how KPS Life can help with your clinical staff recruitment needs, download the paper below.