The signs of life flickered drastically in pharma recruiting in North America over the last year or two, but some are noticing the first flickers in the recent flatline. Could this be the first shoots of a recovery? Dan Beaudry finds out.
Recruitment within the pharmaceutical industry is still smoldering within the ashes of the 2009 economy. “We’re through the uncertain times,” says Cari Kraft, Partner at Jacobs Management Group, an executive search firm in Philadelphia, PA specializing in marketing and sales roles in the Pharmaceutical, Medical Device and Biotech industries, “Now we’re catching up.” Kraft has noticed an upturn in recruitment activity over the fall. “There’s more optimism out there,” she notes, but cautions that an upturn at the end of the year is fairly typical, and may not mean the end of the doldrums.
The systemic changes now churning the pharmaceutical industry make it an uncertain place to be. In the United States, “drugs are moving into the generic space, the FDA is taking longer to approve drugs, and the industry is consolidating,” says Kraft. The ongoing merger of traditional MBA recruiting giants Merck and Schering-Plough, for example, suggests that some sorting out is required before the future MBA needs of the new entity can be fully determined. Some recruiters in the industry note that the big drug makers are no longer the obvious destination for MBA graduates interested in the industry, and many of those company’s former employees are making their way into smaller specialty firms.
While companies like Eli Lilly, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Pfizer continue to advertise internship and rotational programs for MBA graduates, the fast track to management for MBA’s may have a few more curves than in past years. “The path up the ladder isn’t going to be as straight and direct as it has been,” says Tammy Warner, Head of North American IT for Novartis’ Consumer Products division, and former campus recruiter for Schering-Plough. Participants in internship and rotational programs with the big drug makers will likely need to work a little harder this year at navigating the industry’s ambiguities.
Recruiters emphasize, however, that an MBA’s ability to handle uncertainty is part of why they are so valuable to the industry. “[MBA’s] are champions for change,” says Stephanie Weisenberger, Assistant Director of Talent Acquisition at Astellas Pharma US, Inc., headquartered in Deerfield, Ill. “They can deal with ambiguity, and there’s lots of that going on in our industry.” As a medium-sized global firm relatively new to MBA recruitment, Astellas is capitalizing on the overall decrease in competition from big pharma recruiters. They launched their inaugural internship program this past summer and based on the success are hoping to add a few more for the summer 2010 “We’re a growing company, and not many in this industry can say that right now,” claims Weisenberger. “We’ve launched two products in the last two years.”
Even in good economic times, the pharmaceutical industry can be tough to crack without some experience in the industry. This is particularly true for marketing roles. “It’s not an easy industry to cross over into,” says Kraft. “There’re a lot of regulatory factors that make a pharma marketer very different than somewhere else.” For more senior level roles in marketing, an MBA is almost a given. “There’s an impression [in the industry] that once you’ve gotten your MBA, you have an appreciation for strategy. …It’s tough to acquire an MBA and not have business acumen and analytical skills.”
Internship programs, such as Astellas', have traditionally helped to bridge this experience gap by preparing interns for Associate Product Manager roles made available to them after graduation. From there, the path into marketing is smooth, but an MBA is a prerequisite for the internship.
Despite some flickers of life, and the promise of more activity to come, MBA recruiting in the pharmaceutical industry has not been particularly ‘hot’ in 2009, and it looks like this year’s MBA program applicants are already aware of it. According to the QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey 2009, only 1.78% of women surveyed find the pharmaceutical industry as the most attractive post-graduation destination. This is small; but not as small as the .88% of men who agree with the ladies. Interest in a career in the pharmaceutical industry has been on a steady decline among MBA program applicants since 2006.
Could the declining interest mean less competition for those MBA graduates wanting to enter the industry? Perhaps, but graduates interested in entering the pharmaceutical industry next year may want to look beyond the traditional big firms. However uncertain presently, it’s clear that the long term future of the industry is solid – illness and the need for drugs will ensure that. And the personal rewards of being involved may speak for themselves. “We’re saving or improving lives in the pharmaceutical business,” says Warner. Few industries can make this claim as convincingly.