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Fired by Big Tech? Big Pharma wants you

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Since the beginning of 2022, the tech industry has been laid off more than 78,000 employees, according to tracker fired.fyi, with startups and Big Tech companies (including Snap, Tesla, Coinbase, TikTok and Twitter) aggressively thinning the ranks. While many of the affected workers have already, or will, have played a role with competitors, there is evidence that a growing number of Big Tech expatriates are finding greener pastures in a previously unexpected place: Big Pharma. There, recruiters and industry analysts say, the demand for tech talent is rising, with data science and machine learning skills at the top of recruiters’ wish lists.

With the first batch of AI-designed medicines as they go through clinical trials, drug makers are doubling their investments in that area — waging a war for talent. As recently as July, nearly 43% of pharmaceutical companies hired someone for at least one AI position, according to the business intelligence firm Global data. Some companies took on significantly more. Between July 2021 and July 2022, Johnson & Johnson posted nearly 2,500 AI-related job openings; AstraZeneca, over 1,000 AI jobs; and Takeda, Novartis, and Pfizer each tried to fill more than 600 AI roles. Overall, AI jobs accounted for 7% of all new job openings at pharmaceutical companies in July 2022, according to the GlobalData analysis, compared to 2% a year earlier.

“Demand for AI and data science has really grown in the past three to five years,” said Alec Rahman-Jones, director of the New York City office of recruiter Phaidon International, which places talent at both life sciences and traditional technology companies. “We’re starting to see a lot of synergies, especially a lot of crossover from technical talent to R&D and clinical stage work, as well as on the commercial side of things, as companies [increasingly] see data as a sales product.”

Amy Flynn, national life sciences leader at Grant Thornton – an accounting and consulting firm that partners with most of the largest pharmaceutical and medical device companies – sees two key trends that require more diverse expertise in these companies. The first is the massive amount of data they hope to understand. Clinical trials have always provided a lot of data, but now there is also a growing body of “real-world evidence” being collected from patients taking already approved drugs – data, which new guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say can be used by companies to accelerate the approval of new uses for the drugs. “That has created the need for different kinds of analytics, different ways of thinking about and using data,” Flynn says. Second, she says, “there’s more of a technological twist” to the products themselves. “Compared to historical research and development, you need people from different experiences and backgrounds,” Flynn says. “Many of the companies we work with have been trying to recruit people from outside for a few years, especially for higher IT types. [the industry] or from smaller biotech companies.”

Eric Celidonio, founder and managing partner at Sci.bio Recruiting in the Boston area, also sees that both large pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies are pushing for automation. “Every company wants new robotics platforms,” says Celidonio. “About 20% of all the jobs we now hold are purely focused on computer science, data science, or robotics applied to some facet of science.” As drug development is done more computationally, traditional “wet lab” skills are less necessary. “Five chemists can be replaced by half a chemist and a data team,” he says. “The relationship between technical jobs [in pharma] only goes up.”

Anyone who makes the leap from tech to pharma can experience culture shock. The heavily regulated industry can be frustratingly slow for people who are used to acting fast and breaking things. Flynn says, “The culture is still the culture, and it’s not that easy to get in and act in a different way.” While there are good wages in both sectors, Big Tech is still more flexible with things like remote working, says Rahman-Jones: “We need to explain [to pharma companies] that they need to be more flexible to get the technical talent they want. And some are now more open to hybrid work, or offering free lunches.”

But for many, the work just makes more sense. “Helping a new treatment move from phase 2 to phase 3 is very different from selling apps,” says Rahman-Jones. “We’re seeing people who took their data modeling skills to Facebook or a bank five years ago are now turning to biopharma companies.” And now if you’re a candidate with the required skills, he says, “It’s definitely a seller’s market.”

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