Friday, March 9, 2012

STEM shortage watch: the Kelly edition

Pharmaceutical Manufacturing has published its annual salary survey, which shows some level of recovery and asks some pretty interesting questions of its readers. You can also read an interview with Derek Lowe, where he speculates about the fate of pharma jobs. I was most distressed to read this interview with Alan Edwards, the vice president of Kelly's science division, where he pushes the concept of "free agents":
Pharma Manufacturing: How is the life science job market in the U.S. today, as opposed to a year or two ago? What specific changes or trends are you seeing? 
A.E.: The life sciences workforce is transforming to one where individuals are in charge of their own career working for a company within the pharma supply chain as a contingent worker or “free agent”. Many organizations are embracing this trend as part of their overall workforce strategy. Today, free agents account for more than four of 10 workers employed in the U.S. Research conducted by Kelly Services estimates that the free agent population is at least 20 to 30 percent of the entire global workforce—and growing. Free agents are highly educated, highly skilled, and confident in their abilities.
Free agent. Credit: ABC/AP
Cui bono from this shift towards 'free agents'? Certainly, the employer does. I'm guessing that Kelly (and Mr. Edwards) does, too. Does the individual worker? Probably not. Like the NFL free agent market, I'm going to guess that the gains accumulate to the top of the market, not the median worker. We're not all Peyton Manning. I also find it disturbing that Mr. Edwards does not acknowledge that the median worker does not willingly embrace the concept of the 'contingent worker.' 

But the most distressing comment comes later (emphasis mine):
PhM: What exact positions are manufacturers having the most difficult time finding qualified candidates for these days? What’s to explain this difficulty? 
A.E.: The most difficult positions to fill are the bio processing operators and the bio engineering technicians. The reason for the difficulty is the U.S. is not producing enough scientists from our colleges and universities. (Or, is it because not enough students are studying in the science fields?) In addition, the government and trade institutions collaboratively should offer more support to the pharma industry to increase the talent pool. 
Another factor making it hard to find qualified candidates is that companies are using traditional recruiting tactics that are effective today. By partnering with a workforce solutions firm, such as Kelly Services, companies map out a recruitment strategy that is suitable for their needs and meet the demands of the new complex workplace.
This is a bone-stupid comment. While I don't doubt that it is difficult to find experienced bioprocessing operators and technicians, it's probably not because too few students are going to school in the sciences. It's probably much more likely to be the relatively rare training grounds for biological manufacturing, e.g. large cell culture facilities.

This is disappointing to hear from the US head of Kelly's scientific staffing division. 


  1. "By partnering with a workforce solutions firm, such as Kelly Services, companies map out a recruitment strategy that is suitable for their needs and meet the demands of the new complex workplace." - Is this guy suggesting that some 21-year-old recent graduate (the kind of person I normally encounter when dealing with temp agencies) can do a better job of choosing a candidate than an actual damn scientist?

    1. Am I missing something? I associate the job function of operator or technician with being <BSc for quals. Associates or HS and a head on their shoulders...

      At the last place I was at, we had trouble getting clean-room personnel, of the type I'd call bio processing operators, but we sure as hell weren't looking for recent PhD's to fill the slots. I don't think there was anything these people were doing that absolutely mandated a bachelor's degree. This is an area that cries out for on-the-job training, or specialized high school or tech school education.

    2. ^^ That's the thing- these companies have this entitlement complex where they think they shouldn't have to do ANY training, as though a BS in "science" means they have those specific skills already. It's corporate greed and laziness which through lobbying gets translated into "shortage."

    3. Clarification - when I said "21-year-old recent graduate" I was talking about the "scientific recruiters" working for the agencies, not the people being placed.

  2. Dear lord, this is no good.
    Also ... sorry about Peyton, CJ.

    1. 1) Sorry about Manning too. I have one caveat though - what should one have expected from Irsay? The Colts have made some decent choices (Freeney, Harrison, the defensive guy they just paid), but mostly, they picked Manning and not Leaf. Irsay seems to think he's on third because he hit a triple when he hit a single and the fielders flubbed it. Irsay is just Bill Bidwell with a ring.

      Now he's surprised that Freeney doesn't want to "renegotiate" after seeing Manning get negotiated out of $28M. How do NFL owners get rich again? I understand that there are dumber people, but you're asking a lot to have the guy on the other end of the table be even dumber than that.

      2) I thought in Ayn Rand, it was the pinkosXXXXXXliberals like me who assumed that things were made because we needed them. In the "New Economy", everything and everyone is valuable except the people who find and make things and the things they find, who the salespeople assume will always be there, like the grass. I guess they've never seen sheep overgraze a field. I assume they don't understand what happens to the sheep then - they get to see what the free agent market really looks like.

      3) I'd love to see the bidding war when Viehbacher and Witty and Edwards become "free agents". It could be the real world version of Dilbert.

      Catbert: We've been looking for someone who can burn through twenty million dollars without making a profit.
      Ex-startup CEO: That's funny - my last nine interviewers said exactly the same thing. (Catbert with Cheshire Cat grin)

  3. Free agents. That's a good one.

    Most professional athletes go free agent in order to drive up the bidding and get paid more. Scientists who are 'free agents' have to settle for less money, lower or no benefits and the joy of having to beg, plead, scratch and claw for work.


    Wonder when my company give me the honor of being a free agent...

  4. You also have to remember that a free agent like Peyton gets millions of dollars as a free agent. Free agent chemists may work for 9 months on a temp gig, but then go 6 months with no job or salary. This would include low pay and no benefits. Free agents are good for the companies, but not for the scientists.

  5. I'm not really convinced this is good for anyone. What happens if a problem arises, and the guy you need doesn't work for you anymore, or hasn't existed in the better part of a decade because no one bothered to train him. Will this deter projects from going forward? Will projects be dropped because knowledge is lost? Having labor negotiate collectively at least gives labor the chance to mobilize their talents and resources to best suit industry. Having everyone be a "free agent" just seems to muddle everything up and leaves labor just guessing at what skills industry might want. It will definitely deter more people from coming into the profession.

  6. Companies do have something to gain from partnering with HR firms. Let me explain.

    Most companies use those godforsaken resume parsers like taleo and brassring now. When you apply to the company, you no longer just send them a copy of your resume and a cover letter and hope that your words impress them. No. Now you submit your resume to a program which will then skim your resume, and pretend to know whether or not you'd be a good fit for the position. I remember reading stats in the WSJ article on these damned things that out of 1000 applicants, only 10 actually get looked at by a human being. You could have a Nobel prize on your resume, and because you don't explicitly have select secret keywords on your resume, you will never get a call. Even though there may be quite a few qualified candidates, companies miss out on them because an applicant may have the right concept, but phrased it differently than the parser expects.

    This is where the temp agencies come in. They actually have a human being, with a brain, look at your resume instead of having it sent to a digital abyss. People can intelligently look at a resume and say, "Hey, this person didn't say that they are an expert pipettor, but I see that they've listed all these techniques which use pipettes, so they are probably pretty good!" To my knowledge, the parsing services simply can't do that.

    So by using people instead of technology to do the legwork, they are more likely to find people who match the skills that they need. Also, candidates are more likely to get placed in the first place.

    Now, is this industry's own fault for gutting their HR people in the first place? Yes. Absolutely. Nobody made them use these services. Is this less than desirable now for workers than in the good old days? Yes, absolutely. There's a lot of stress about being a contract employee. Knowing that you have bills to pay, and tomorrow, you might lose my job, even though you do good work. Is this trend going to change? Not as long as you can have CEOs blaming openings on a "lack of qualified workers."

    1. Brain? Did you actually just use word brain? There's a guy who just sent me a position of ICP technician based, I assume, solely on the fact that the word is mentioned in my resume. And that happens every damn week. Another one called me last week to ask if I had "FDA experience" which his client required. As far as I can tell from dozens of email, and quite a few phone conversations I had over the years people from Kelly, Aerotek, Manpower, etc. by and large don't know jack about the fields they are hiring into.

    2. I guess I've just gotten lucky with the recruiters I've met. While, yeah, they get that glazed-over look if you talk about anything overly technical, generally they'll understand if you explain something to them like they're five. Case in point - I was talking with a recruiter the other week who was asking me about my experience with HPLC. I explained to them that I had experience with that particular instrument from my coursework, and while I hadn't played around with that instrument in a research lab, I did use a very similar instrument called an FPLC in the research lab, stated that the principles are very similar, and that the FPLC that I was using was in fact an HPLC that was modified to fit the purpose. That was enough for the recruiter. He may not have understood every word of what I was saying, but he did submit me to the job.

      So, I guess that I would say that they have brains, just the brains of five-year-olds. It is up to you to educate them enough so that they can be your advocate in the hiring process.

      I would still rather to have worked with HR people from the actual companies I would like to work with instead of the middlemen, but that's really not an option anymore. The options as I see it are the black hole that is Taleo/Brassring or Recruiters, who you can convince to work the network for you, and you can train to speak in a semi-educated manner on your behalf.

    3. So why do the agencies always hire kids with Film Studies degrees to be recruiters? There are plenty of laid-off scientists out there willing to work for peanuts, and they would actually understand the technical terms in the resumes!

  7. AZ just made a whole bunch of chemists Free Agents.

  8. Free agent when you are not in the movies or sports is a euphemism for SOL. In reality you are itinerant worker with no permanent home just going from job to job working for meager pay.

    I would really like to know how this works. Say you live in NJ and Dow needs you on a project in Midland MI. Do you kiss the wife and kids good-bye and then jump on the next Greyhound or coal train headed to Midland with your hobo knapsack over your shoulder? Do move into Dow worker housing, al la Foxconn - nets and all, or do you get to live under the overpass? Of course you will need to send money back across the border to the family, so hopefully you don’t get mugged or get paid company script.

    Alternatively, do you pack up the family, pile all of your belonging on top of your car or strap your stuff onto the car hood, and then head out for Midland? Do you put your family into some cardboard suburban shanty town on the outskirts of Midland next to the itinerant cherry pickers' cardboard neighborhood? Or do you just live in your car on county back roads and in the fields of rural MI?
    When the job ends are you rousted out of Midland by the town authorities or can you stay in your paper mache home until you get your next Free Agent job?

    These are the kind of free agent career self-management questions to which enquiring minds want answers.

    Alternatively may be it is better to just become a career plumber, electrician, mechanic or welder. At least you have a shot a good job for good pay and a stable family existence in a town of you're choosing.

    1. In most states you even get the union working for you as a plumber,electrician, mechanic or welder.

    2. Amen to that! I like chemistry, but do I like it enough to see my parents once a year at Christmas? Honestly, the answer is no! If I get laid off again, I'll leave the field before I'll move. Making new friends ain't easy if you're not living in a college dorm, and you only get one family.

  9. becoming a free agent is like when they transform you into a free spirit - by chopping your head off


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20