By Alan D. Greathouse, The FDA Group
When life sciences companies need to access new talent, they typically have two main options: bring in a consultant or hire a full-time employee.
Usually, this decision is dictated by the permanence of the role. Sometimes, however, timelines complicate things. A hiring manager may know, for example, that they need to hire a full-time employee to fill a permanent role but can’t afford to wait several weeks or months to recruit, onboard, and train someone.
In this situation, an interim consultant — a third-party expert who brings firsthand experience in the functional area — can be borrowed to get work started while a formal candidate search is conducted concurrently. If the interim consultant proves to be an excellent fit and is interested in staying on full time, the employer can simply hire them after the contract ends.
This use of interim contractors is familiar and common throughout the life sciences, including in biopharma companies, cell and gene therapy companies, and medical device companies. But there’s another interim strategy that isn’t so well-known despite its many benefits.
The Interim Consultant As Job Description Test-Driver
In this lesser-utilized strategy, hiring managers use interim consultants to validate or “test-drive” the accuracy and completeness of new job descriptions for new (and often highly specialized) roles, such as those within the areas of quality assurance, commissioning, qualification, and validation, and the many functions of clinical operations, while, again, being able to get work started quickly. Like the more common interim scenario, this test-driver strategy can also result in a convenient contract-to-hire outcome if the job description proves to accurately capture the real-life demands of the role and the consultant is both interested in and a good fit for the full-time position.
If, however, the initial job description is shown not to be adequate and needs to be refined, those refinements can be captured in a new job description and passed on to an internal or external recruiter who can then execute a better candidate search based on the lessons imparted by the consultant. And of course, if the initial job description proves to be way off from the real-world demands of the role — and the interim consultant is unqualified for the project — they can likely be switched out with another much faster and less painfully than a full-time hire.
Using interim contractors this way, as a means of filling new and unfamiliar functional roles, enables employers to better understand exactly who they need to hire at various stages of growth and de-risk the hiring process itself. The department or unit leaders tasked with filling those roles can use interim professionals to validate the assumptions they’re often forced to make when developing job descriptions for new roles whose requirements aren’t obvious. When interim resources are deployed this way, project timelines don’t have to wait on an arduous recruitment process and the risk of a bad hire is reduced. The employer can sharpen its job descriptions by watching the work get done.
Appreciating All The Advantages Interim Consultants Offer
This consultant as job description test-driver strategy demonstrates one way interim consultants give life sciences companies a workforce mechanism to creatively solve their hiring challenges in a labor market that seems to become more challenging every day. As we’ve seen firsthand, many of the employers successfully attracting top talent in today’s hyper-competitive talent market have realized all the ways consultants and contractors can serve to solve unique resourcing problems — and have made them a core component of their broader workforce strategy.
Rather than perceiving these third-party professionals as purely temporary help — outsiders you bring inside for a short time to, for example, conduct an internal audit, write and validate some procedures, or augment internal staff during busy times — life sciences companies are increasingly discovering that these specialized workers have far more utility and are called upon routinely to spearhead new teams, bridge skill gaps, and accommodate periods of intense workload.
Here are a few of the obvious and not-so-obvious advantages of integrating interim consultants as a component of a broader workforce strategy:
Teams can start executing more project work immediately. By augmenting internal staff with experienced consultants who are used to being thrown in the deep end with a new team, employers can keep their projects moving and have a better chance of getting work done on time and within budget compared to securing those resources through traditional full-time hiring. In this labor market, it’s not uncommon to wait months for “unicorn” candidates with specialized skills and experience to emerge from the recruitment gauntlet. It’s also not uncommon for top talent to fall out of an exhausting or seemingly endless screening process, especially when they receive offers from more nimble employers.
Teams can outsource talent selection to qualified third parties and invest their time and energy where it’s better spent. While many companies choose to find, engage, and select consultants directly, others find value in outsourcing talent selection to a trusted third-party consulting firm. This limits the employer’s participation and duties in the process to selecting the best candidates from a shortlist of suggested professionals provided by the resourcing partner. The time and attention that would otherwise be demanded from the hiring manager for screening long lists of potential candidates can be reinvested elsewhere.
Teams can spend far less time managing (and more time doing). Depending on the circumstances surrounding a particular human resourcing need and the capabilities of a partnering consulting firm, employers may also be able to partially or fully outsource project management to control day-to-day workflow and have that progress reported to them. In cases where external project management is appropriate and available, the employer can free itself from needing to devote its constant attention to the project being run by the consultant or outsourced team. Control can be maintained without the burden of direct management.
Teams can fine-tune the description of their role. This point reiterates the main advantage of the strategy I presented earlier. While a consultant or team of contractors is working, there might be parts of the job description listed as requirements but are turning out not to be required. Other times, it’s just the opposite: it’s discovered that something needs to be a requirement but isn't listed in the responsibilities. Employers can glean an incredible amount of practical insight about a role — especially a new role — simply by observing and interacting with a skilled consultant providing intelligence and suggestions while also delivering immense value to a project.
Teams can better determine the requisite soft skills and personality profile that fit the role. Many roles require much more than a hard skill set. Is this someone that needs to be very direct and authoritative, or will they need a softer touch? Will their work be siloed, or will it require them to wear a few different hats? Seeing the role “come to life” with a consultant allows employers to see precisely which personality traits complement the role — something that’s almost impossible to pin down based on assumptions alone.
Teams can detect strengths and weaknesses and accelerate training and eventual onboarding. Using interim contractors this way also helps improve the interview process of an eventual employee. As an employer, you might detect things you see as a precious asset in that individual and, vice versa, spot red flags early. In cases where a consultant may be hired on full time following the contracted period, this approach also provides in-work training, accelerating their ramp-up speed.
Today, life sciences companies face enormous challenges in finding the skilled people needed to support their growth. Demand for highly specialized talent is outpacing its supply in the labor market. And as top talent becomes scarcer and roles increasingly become less familiar and more complicated, the traditionally slow and arduous employee recruitment process can end up getting in its own way.
These hiring challenges have breathed new life into the value and application of interim consultants, a workforce model that’s by no means new but worth revisiting given how well it’s suited to address these concerns.
As most professionals involved in hiring decisions already know, interim consultants provide a way to rapidly access the scientific, operational, and technical competencies a company needs to keep work moving. What’s often not top-of-mind, however, is how this model can be used to address some of the challenges of hiring into permanent full-time positions; namely by allowing the employer to refine the job description for an eventual permanent role while an interim contractor or team of contractors tackles the project work immediately.
Integrating interim consultants into a broader workforce strategy enables life sciences companies to hire flexibly and refine their searches — a viable option for those spearheading new program development and helping to augment a company’s internal team during busy times or when a company is just building out a part of its workforce.
About the Author:
Alan D. Greathouse has more than 15 years of CGMP manufacturing experience focused on parenteral drug products. Throughout his career, he has focused on manufacturing processes optimization and identifying and correcting operational inefficiencies. He has experience in life science production supervision and has served as a lyophilization expert and principal pharmaceutical consultant. He currently oversees consulting and contract staffing operations as senior director of quality and service assurance at The FDA Group. He can be contacted via the online contact form at thefdagroup.com.