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Battle for Clinical Operations talent intensifies

By Ciara Noble, Business Manager, Clinical & Medical

March 2021

Battle for Clinical Operations talent intensifies

While CRO clients have long struggled with the challenge of attracting clinical operations talent, the current demand in the market to cover both Covid studies and the backlog of projects put on pause last year means the recruitment landscape today is tougher than ever. Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) are used to operating in a candidate-driven environment and their widespread reluctance to move during the pandemic uncertainty is only compounding the issue.

We are being asked all the time how competitors are overcoming the problems to attract new talent, and certainly CRA salaries have increased in general over the last three years and continue to face upward pressure. We are also seeing growing use of sign-on bonuses to attract candidates through the door, though these are frequently met with bullish counter offers from existing employers keen to hold on to talent.

An emerging theme is the return to the marketplace of the small and midsized CROs that have been more reticent in the past 12 months. While demand from the biggest CROs never went away, the fact that these nimbler competitors are coming back to the table makes it even harder for the large CROs to distinguish themselves. Senior CRA candidates tend to be attracted by the opportunities to lead trials, engage with management and quickly progress, frequently leading them into the arms of the less rigid structures of the smaller players. Meanwhile the large CROs remain a destination of choice for CRAs in the earlier part of their careers or those moving from public health or academia, attracted by the strong brand names and broad exposure.

"Today’s CRAs demand rapid movement up the ladder towards project management or other leadership responsibilities and those with as little as two and a half years’ experience now seek, and frequently secure, SCRA roles."

 

So, what can be done to lure that elusive clinical operations talent, given such a challenging backdrop? The answer lies in wising up to exactly what candidates are looking for, which today frequently centres around work-life balance: reduced or more regional travel, fewer protocols to work on, and a clear route to career progression. 

Today’s CRAs demand rapid movement up the ladder towards project management or other leadership responsibilities and those with as little as two and a half years’ experience now seek, and frequently secure, SCRA roles. This hunger to progress is often what leads candidates to move from larger CROs to smaller ones, along with problems with communication and bureaucracy.

For the big players, it is incredibly difficult to convince good CRAs to move from one large CRO to another. However, at any one time, a large proportion of the candidates on the market are looking to move from academia into industry and CROs that take the risk on such hires tend to be impressed by their abilities and find they settle well into the new environment. It’s important to find the balance between attracting experienced CRAs with strong commercial experience that can hit the ground running and simultaneously having a strong CRA development programme for those less experienced and coming from a non-commercial background.