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Scaling to Meet Current Clinical Research Demands

Four strategies for research enterprises to source, onboard, manage, and further develop in-demand talent

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as many as 43 percent of research studies were quickly delayed, suspended, or outright cancelled, as research resources were reallocated toward COVID-19-related trials. In addition, research sites experienced an enormous amount of turnover, reaching more than 21 percent in November 2020, resulting in significant reduced capacity and an empty pipeline of talent.

Fast forward to today, and clinical research leaders are quickly resuming studies that were put on hold. Great news—except that everyone is revving the clinical research engine at the same time, resulting in a fierce competition for limited talent. This situation is concerning, as clinical research operations could lose funding and work if resources fall short of needs.

Here are four ways research enterprises can add capacity by adopting new strategies to source, onboard, and manage in-demand talent.

1. Source flexible resources

The clinical research industry should begin looking at workforce solutions partners to give them the ability to hire on demand as studies resume and ramp up. Assessing the current challenges within operations and identifying the resources necessary to fill those gaps is a good first step. A partner with experience, connections, and specialization within the clinical research field should be able to quickly develop and scale a workforce solution.

2. Train at scale

As organizations add to their workforce capacity, training and onboarding becomes the next hurdle. It can be challenging to ensure a rapidly scaled workforce is being given the right training to succeed and become engaged with their work. A Society for Human Resource Management study showed that organizations with standardized onboarding have 50 percent greater new-hire productivity, and new employees who went through a structured onboarding program were 58 percent more likely to be with the organization after three years. 

Partnering new talent with more established employees for onboarding and training is one way organizations can train, engage, and retain talent—but outside of research studies, there is a limit to how much bandwidth is feasible to expect established employees to commit. 

Another solution is to outsource training and give new team members a hybrid schedule during their first days, where part of their time is spent in training and part is spent on applying the techniques learned.

3. Manage projects strategically

Sourcing contract talent adds flexibility, but may not be an effective long-term solution, especially if organizations have robust needs. The amount of time it takes to set up a clinical trial is extensive; adding multiple new teams will stretch managers thin. A more strategic and effective option is to leverage a vendor that can build and train a team and take on accountability for project outcomes, rather than simply sourcing talent. Ask potential vendors for examples of past work and outcomes before making a commitment.

4. Diversify the supply of talent

One solution for the industry’s turnover and talent drought is to diversify the supply of research talent from the local community. This can be achieved by creating entry-level positions or seeking candidates with experience in related fields like medical technologists and working to advance their skills with on-the-job training to work in clinical research. 

In 2020, there were 88,000 biology grads, according to EMSI, yet an estimated less than 1 percent entered clinical research fields after graduation. A structured boot-camp approach can be extremely effective to fast-track entry-level talent into clinical careers. As a first step, organizations should identify relevant feeder skillsets and build partnerships with local colleges and universities or professional associations that can be conduits for that talent. Then, develop a plan to recruit and further train people for specific roles through a mix of e-learning and on-the-job training.

Building an advanced training program to intentionally expand workforce capabilities to fill in-demand roles is a great long-term solution for organizations, especially when resources can also be dedicated to nurturing employees’ careers and retaining them over time. Alternatively, a workforce solutions partner may already have this kind of pipeline in place and be able to leverage it on an as-needed basis.

Research leaders will need to find creative ways to recover capacity without assuming too much risk too soon, at least until businesses stabilize to pre-COVID-19 levels. An organizations’ ability to add flexibility and reliably forecast delivery of future work will ultimately drive its ongoing investments and business success.