Monday, November 15, 2010

Our chemical mercenary future?

An interesting trend in Susan Ainsworth's Employment Outlook article was the mention of contingent or contract workers:
Although job prospects in pharma companies are slim right now, employment opportunities are growing elsewhere as drug firms increasingly rely on outsiders to supplement their bone-lean workforces. "As a result of this shift, there is likely to be greater demand for consultants and contract workers," Saras points out. "While these positions may be less desirable than those in a drug company, they can help people keep their skills fresh and expand their networks and can lead to full-time opportunities in the future."
Life-sciences-based firms are not the only ones relying more on contract workers, says Kelly Services' Edwards. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total contingent workforce accounts for at least one-quarter of all workers and is growing at two to three times the rate of the traditional workforce. What's more, contingent workers are expected to comprise nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce added after the recession.
This recent Vertex position is a great example of this potential trend (sent in by an astute reader):
Temp. 3 Month Contract 
A Scientist will design and develop chemistry on a synthetic project and will be involved in conducting laboratory experiments to enable the delivery of compound to support early toxicology and technical transfer.  A Scientist will physically be involved with developing new chemistry and demonstrating that chemistry by delivering bulk intermediates or API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) at expected purity for phase of development. 
While you can easily understand the motivations behind the position for each side of the table ("We need hands now!!" / "It's not a great job, but it's a job for a while"), I would argue that this is a not a good trend for the pharmaceutical industry. I cannot imagine that you can have an effective R&D workforce if it is constantly thinking about looking for a new position.

Perhaps I should grow up and embrace this potential harbinger of our brave new future. One could imagine (please forgive the mixed metaphors) a pseudo-liberal arts academia model: a few permanent staff that have lifetime employment and a vast sea of M.S./Ph.D. chemistry ronin that wander about from company to company, working 2 year contracts. "We deal in compound, friend." 


  1. It seems that nowadays, everything is a short term contract. My second job lasted almost 8 years in Big Pharma and it seems that now, just like everyone else, there is no security for the employee and no accountability from the employer. We all have to be ready jump ship at any moment. This is on top of an abyssmal employment market for chemists. How does this affect everyone's loyalty to one company when contracts are so short ? Not good.

  2. Keep those resumes dusted off, people!

    CJ: Didn't that ad for Vertex also mention that you'd be responsible for managing other scientists as well? So, the upshot, first day in lab: "Hi, I'm &^*%(*, I'll be your boss for the next, oh, 89 days"

  3. You get what you pay for.

  4. Don't forget the uber-evil LLY-Covance deal last year. Same building, same projects, same scientists, but your name tag now says Covance....

  5. I saw these short term contract work adds recently - and I immediately decided that Vertex is not a company that I would like to work for in the future, even with a good offer. I am not desperate enough.

  6. These contracts started to become very common in 2006, now a friend only hires contract scientists. It reminds me of a sentence from Phil Greenspun's Women In Science essay: "The American academic scientist now earns less than an airplane mechanic, has the job security of a drummer in a boy band and works more hours than a Bolivian silver miner." It seems the academic culture is not the only place we see this.

  7. I think that Novartis in the UK has a similar contract type research group which endlessly turns over staff to keep costs down. You sometimes see group leader positions there advertised at about 30-35k per year (GBP), so about 50k USD for a temporary team leader position.

  8. Same with Lilly in UK, aka Kelly Sci. Same lab, same projects, same chemists, different contracts, month-to-month basis. Who is desperate enough to go there?

    btw 35-40k for a group leader in the UK is about maximum one can get these days.

  9. Of course, it's sad that this is even considered cost-effective, especially if you're only there for three months, of which the first few weeks are spent reading SOPs etc making sure you're safe to work in the lab, so you only get about 500 hours worth of effective lab time, even without meetings etc. I don't know whether to be pleased that I managed to fail to get interview here or not :(