The past few years have seen a boom in the medical communications sector, with tighter regulation over how the industry can promote drugs on the market and increased demand for new and innovative communications strategies.
One positive result is that the market as a whole is reaping the benefits of more and more work being outsourced from pharmaceutical companies into the agency domain. The industry as a whole is growing. It is no longer dominated by a few large communications groups, but rather there is a propagation of smaller, more boutique, agencies increasing their market share. Yet there are still key limiting factors keeping this growth in check. As David Williams of 3C's stated: "In these days of declaration and transparency, the MedComms sector has emerged from the shadows and is now more visible than ever and yet it is failing to capitalise on the opportunity this affords."
As more and more agencies expand into medical communications, they are fishing from a smaller pool with fierce competition. It is no secret that many of the agencies in the medical communications industry suffer with the same issue, which made me wonder why this situation had been allowed to escalate to become the endemic problem it is today.
More and more agencies are winning exciting and involving briefs but struggling to handle the workload as they cannot attract account handlers to deliver on their promises to clients. So what is already being done and what other potential options could there be to solve this issue?
A recent survey of the sector, carried out by RBW Consulting and MedComms Networking Community, found that 81 per cent of people thought that there was a major shortage of account handlers from graduate level to line management level. It showed that 42 per cent of people felt that this had hindered their companies' overall growth. It seems, from many pieces of anecdotal evidence, that the problem is, if anything, getting worse. If so, growth within medical communications could be forced to plateau, with agencies unable to cover existing engagements and forced to turn away additional work.
One surprising and telling fact was that only 13 per cent of the people asked worked for a company that offered a graduate programme. Although the main skills shortage is at a more senior level at the moment, one has to look further 'upstream' to find the root of the problem. A lack of development at entry level can only exacerbate the problems at senior levels, as a lack of 'fresh blood' into the industry strangles the supply of future seasoned candidates.
It is entirely understandable that, with increasing workload and the pressure that brings, often agencies are only considering experienced account handlers so as to minimise training downtime. Unfortunately, such people are increasingly few and far between. Account handlers with knowledge of industry guidelines together with the science behind the drugs they are promoting are now able to be selective about their next role, making them harder to recruit than other communications jobs at a similar level.
With this bottleneck in mind, the outlook for those hoping to attract account handlers within medical communications is concerning. The skills shortage is putting ever more pressure on the account handlers that agencies do have and as account handlers naturally move up through the ranks, companies appear to need to go to increasing lengths to fill the resulting void.
More companies fighting over a reducing number of candidates results in the inflation of salaries, at least in the short term
In any industry, more companies fighting over a reducing number of candidates results in the inflation of salaries, at least in the short term. While this appears to be positive for the candidates involved, in the long term this could affect the economic stability of the market; eventually, surely, something will have to give.
A second issue is, in many ways, a by-product of the first; with more and more of the existing account handlers having to take on extra work while their employers struggle to find new team members, some may look for more favourable conditions elsewhere, leaving such companies struggling to retain staff. The result of this is that agencies are unable to keep up with demand and, as a result, have to turn away new business, as they simply have not had the staff to manage it.
Obviously this is detrimental to their growth but another concern is that if pharmaceutical companies cannot outsource their work to the agencies, they may bring that work back in-house.
It is not fair to say that companies are not trying to address the skills shortage issue, but it appears that only short-term measures are being taken. Everyone wants the same thing; someone with experience. However, there are only so many of these people around. They are also constantly progressing within their careers and will eventually be moving on from simple account handling.
Agencies have a number of options to look at if this problem is to be addressed. One is for companies to mortgage their future by paying more than their competitor or creating fancy job titles to attract the best staff to work for them. This has happened repeatedly in other sectors with more and more companies following suit, leading to a kind of employment arms race, which is detrimental to all of the employers involved, ultimately.
It is also generally the case that agencies remunerate at a lesser level than pharma companies, especially at the account manager or account director level. Many candidates want to move from agency into pharma as they hold a preconceived idea, rightly or wrongly, that the pharmaceutical companies will pay them more for a less challenging job. Many agencies are starting to demonstrate that there is a strong career path within their company structure and that it is possible to earn a comparative salary and this is starting to have an effect.
One [option] is for companies to mortgage their future by paying more than their competitor
Part of a longer-term solution could be simply to raise awareness of the benefits of working in account management. Ironically, a number of people commented on the inability of agencies to communicate their own brand message to potential recruits, particularly within medical communications.
As mentioned, there are few companies that offer graduate schemes. It seems essential, if this industry is to maintain its enviable growth, that it has new talent constantly entering, and being trained in, medical communications. The medical writing side of the industry seems to have realised this fact and is adequately represented at graduate recruitment fairs and so on, but the account handling side generally has not. If the career potential of account handling and the senior roles it can lead to become known more widely, companies stand more chance of attracting talent early on.
General awareness about medical communications is poor among life science graduates and other related professions and this lack of grass-roots engagement is the crux of the problem leading to a shortage of experienced account handlers.
This is a key challenge faced by agencies: how to make graduates and junior professionals aware of the benefits of a career in medical communications. One or two forward-thinking companies have offered graduates the chance to try both entry level account handling and writing roles with the option of committing to one path after the first year, but when the majority of medical communications agencies run graduate training schemes for writers and not for account managers, it is unsurprising that the problem discussed here exists.
There will always be demand for experienced candidates, but to support the growth that this industry deserves, a more flexible approach to recruiting and training graduates is vital.
Emma Thorp is senior consultant at RBW Consulting
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