First, the good news: life expectancies are rising, 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day (which provides jobs for other workers and gives boomers an opportunity to enjoy their golden years), and the life sciences and healthcare sector is projected to grow by 5.4% annually, outpacing global GDP.

Now, the bad news: According to Randstad Sourceright’s 2019 Talent Trends survey, 85% of human capital and C-suite leaders in the life sciences and healthcare sector say talent scarcity is one of their greatest concerns.

Causes of the workforce challenge

"A great feature of our modern society is that the healthcare industry has helped to raise life expectancy right at a time when the baby boomer generation is approaching retirement age," explains Tania De Decker, Senior Vice President, Global Client Solutions – Healthcare at Randstad.

"This large aging population is already driving up demand for innovative medicine, diagnostics and therapies across the board, to the point that companies are having trouble staffing enough workers to meet the demand."

This sector is growing at a rapid rate and some retiring baby boomers are leaving jobs in the healthcare sector. "And this will significantly impact those healthcare companies, including making it difficult to backfill institutional knowledge as more mature workers leave the workforce."

New diagnostics and therapies are a large part of the sector’s growth. For example, as many widely used drugs come off patent, pharmaceutical and biopharma companies will need new products in the pipeline. Also, gene therapy will play a critical role in the treatment of cancer and other types of diseases.

Competition for top talent

A variety of roles, including clinical study managers, research associates, and regulatory managers are in high demand. "However, emerging roles, such as mathematics and analytical specialists in bioinformatics are difficult to find, but extremely important, as they can help companies accelerate the pace of discovering drug molecules and refining treatment," De Decker says.

In addition, the healthcare sector faces stiff competition on various fronts. According to the survey, 52% of respondents consider companies operating in the same industries as competitors for talent, and 55% felt their competitors were companies with similar internal skill sets.

However, 45% thought companies operating in digitally led industries to be competitors, and 49% said companies with a visible brand presence were competitive threats for talent.

To recruit workers with digital skills, the healthcare industry will need to recruit workers in fields such as IT and communications. That means they’re competing with Silicon Valley.

"For example, Apple has received FDA approval for a smartwatch with an electrocardiogram monitor," De Decker says. “Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are also investing in health data analytics.”

Those examples also highlight another problem in the healthcare sector. Clinical studies can span years and have to be reviewed by government agencies, while the IT and communications sectors can bring products to market at a more rapid pace. This can make healthcare less appealing to candidates choosing between the sectors.

How the industry is responding

"Some of the largest healthcare companies are already acquiring chief digital officers from other industries," says De Decker. They’re also operating with more transparency and investing in employer branding and the talent experience. For example, some companies are touting their diverse and inclusive cultures, healthy work-life balance, and the organization’s financial stability.

They’re also approaching the talent shortage from another angle. "What we’re seeing is that companies are ramping up their workforces by leveraging more flexible talent," De Decker says. "They are experimenting with more flexible schedules for medical professionals, researchers, IT, and support staff, hiring them on a part-time or freelance basis, and collaborating with more external partners, like contractors, to address the increasing demand."

In fact, 46% of survey respondents project that contingent workers will make up 21% to 30% of their workforces.

"As companies fine-tune this more variated and agile workforce model, they will be better positioned to deliver on the life-saving innovation their customers demand now, and will demand in the future," De Decker says.