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Author: Gabrielle Bauer

These days, it can be especially hard to hire at the entry level.

The next time a recruiting firm boasts about their superior ability to attract senior leaders, don’t be too impressed. Instead, ask them how well they can attract the next generation of talent. It may seem counterintuitive, but today’s market economies have made good junior people as challenging to find as corner-office-ready VPs.

STEM scarcity

It starts with a basic supply problem. For several years now, observers of the recruiting scene have noted the shortage of qualified junior scientists. A 2018 article in Recruiting Daily anticipated that the global shortage of new talent, already in evidence at the time, would become worse over the coming years, especially in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] fields. Indeed, a report by the National Association of Manufacturing and Deloitte estimates that the US will have 3.5 million STEM jobs to fill by 2025—but will struggle to fill 2 million of them because of the lack of appropriately skilled candidates.

Much has been written about the root causes of this drought, from lack of encouragement for women to pursue STEM careers to university course content that doesn’t match the highly specialized requirements of today’s biotech employers. What’s more, events such as the OxyContin and Vioxx recalls have tarnished the industry’s reputation in the minds of some people. This “branding problem” may lead young people to turn away from the field.

Add a new influx of biotech seed money to the mix and you end up with a marked imbalance between the number of job opportunities (a lot) and the number of qualified candidates to fill them (a lot less).

“STEM has a branding problem with younger generations. [They] don’t understand how STEM skills translate into real-life applications.”
-Recruiting Daily

The COVID conundrum

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t exactly made things easier. Throughout the world, the pandemic has pressed pause on young scientists and science students’ formative activities. An article by CBI, a business association representing 190,000 firms in the UK, reports that, while the volume and calibre of junior applicants was higher than ever in fall 2021, applicants may have “COVID-19 skills gaps” that may escape recruiters’ notice. Issues that may impact the “pandemic generation may include:

  • No formal exams: With widespread cancellation of exams over the course of the pandemic, candidates have not had to perform under the usual pressures.
  • Gap in transferable skills: After sheltering at home for so long and missing extra-curricular activities such as team sports or theatre, many young adults have not had the usual opportunities to build up such transferable skills as cooperation and leadership—and the confidence that goes with these skills.
  • Lack of interview preparation: With career fairs and mock interviews much harder to organize during the pandemic, new graduates may lack awareness of how to behave during interviews.

As an employer, you may have trouble differentiating these pandemic-related gaps, which a candidate can presumably surmount over time, from more fundamental weaknesses. Can you trust that the A+ in organic chemistry signals true competence? Does a candidate’s awkward interview style reflect a pandemic-related skills gap or an inherently poor communication style? While there are no easy answers, questioning a candidate about how the pandemic has affected them may offer useful insights.

Bringing junior talent on board

In this scarcity environment, attracting and retaining the best young scientific minds—or reliable back-benchers—calls for some strategy. Employers must understand that the perks that mean the most to older generations, such as salary and stability, mean a lot less to millennials, who fully expect to switch jobs several times during their careers—and even welcome it.

In a series of three surveys, which garnered a total of 236 responses, researchers sought to gain insight into the values espoused by young scientists and engineers. Dominant themes in the responses included the ability to work on innovative research and freedom to set research direction.

  • Start ups too focused on technology and not enough on cultural underpinnings
  • Huge delta in pay, i.e. overpaid senior leaders and underpaid new associates
  • Harder to find building blocks but easier to place them in the base of the pyramid. At the top is where it is easier to find but harder to place candidates in position.

Base of the pyramid

While your senior hires may accomplish great things, they depend on a team of juniors—the base of the pyramid—to get the job done. Today’s environment has made it especially difficult to source out the right building blocks for that base. There’s no lack of bricks: it’s finding the solid ones that poses a challenge.

At Sci.bio, we understand that life sciences superstars cannot accomplish great things without solid shoulders to stand on. We put the same effort—and science—into recruiting at the entry and senior levels. Talk to us to find out how we do it.

1. Why the US has a STEM shortage and how we fix it. Recruiting Daily. Nov. 6, 2018.
2. John G. The unique challenges of recruiting for entry level positions in 2021 and beyond. The CBI. May 17, 2021.
3. Northern TR et al. Attracting and retaining top scientists and engineers at U.S. national laboratories and universities: Listening to the next generation. Electrochemical Society Interface 2019;28.