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Pan-European talent management & recruitment challenges in life sciences

Jean-Luc Niedergang

European life science hubs including Austria, Switzerland and Germany all have their own challenges when it comes to attracting the best talent. But what are they doing to lure the very best and how does this impact on HR policies?  What do firms do well and where do they need to focus their efforts? Contributor Jean-Luc Niedergang, General Manager, Talentmark Switzerland

Employer branding is key and there is no doubt that the larger European firms are aware of its importance.  In Austria, for example, a qualitative benchmark study conducted amongst 83 CEOs and Managing Directors of medium-sized firms (up to 500 staff) by the Viennese Experts Group Human Resource Management Vienna (EG-HRM) found that personnel-related matters are seen as having high importance, with employer brand in particular cited as one of the key issues.

As such, a lot of investment goes into ensuring that the major life sciences firms in Austria are promoting themselves well to potential candidates. Vienna is also popular with multinationals because of its quality of life and relative affordability: the Mercer Quality of Living survey has named Vienna as the world’s most liveable city for nine years in a row.

As a result of both factors, big international players generally have no difficulty recruiting or retaining overseas candidates who view the city as an attractive place to work for a few years (or in many cases, even longer).

However, smaller Austrian companies often struggle to recruit the best talent because they simply cannot pay as much as rival German employers. To fill the gap, they tend to look to Eastern Europe – particularly in technical roles where there is a major shortage of local candidates. Indeed, this easy access to skilled Eastern Europeans is one reason why Austria is becoming a popular location for international companies and why several multinationals have established their Central European HQs in Vienna.

Other European countries and regions are also working hard at promoting themselves as a great place to live and work. For Switzerland – a world leader in life sciences – this is particularly important because the sector accounts for 45% of the country’s total exports. And the engine room of the sector is the city of Basel, situated on the river Rhine at the point where the Swiss, French and German borders meet.

This highly strategic location is one of the keys to the city’s success. Coupled with a critical mass of pharma employers, a high standard of living and a pool of local talent that spreads across three countries, it means that Basel is also a very attractive location for international companies, a fact that the city’s proactive regional development agency works hard to highlight.

A recent arrival in Basel is Roivant Science, a company that in-licenses late-stage drug candidates and develops them through subsidiaries. Explaining the decision to locate its global HQ in Basel, Roivant’s CEO and founder, Vivek Ramaswamy, pointed to a city that brings together a diverse talent pool from multiple countries and cultures, speaking different languages with varied experiences and educational backgrounds. This mixture makes for the sort of warm, welcoming, and innovative environment which mirrors the culture that Roivant is seeking to build internally.

But the real challenge for Switzerland is that it has to recruit from abroad, because there is simply not enough local talent at many levels. Therefore, it isn’t unusual for a search for a senior life sciences position in a Swiss firm to have a shortlist comprised almost entirely of international candidates.  This goes some way to explaining why Switzerland has been named as the no.1 country in the world for attracting and retaining top talent in the IMD Business School’s annual World Talent Ranking Report, a position it has held for the past five years.

However, not all countries can enjoy this degree of flexibility. In contrast, France for example has a much lower proportion of non-national talent, partly because recruitment programmes in the sector often operate closely with public research laboratories, engineering schools and universities, all of which remain essentially national structures.

When it comes to the war for talent, competitive salary packages are important. However, there are huge variances in compensation packages across Europe and companies have to be flexible. For example, a German pharma company seeking to fill a senior role was willing to let the right person work from anywhere in Europe without needing to relocate. Their chosen candidate happened to be a German living in Switzerland. This meant that their salary expectations were significantly higher – by some 25-30% – than had they been living in Germany and that they expected to be employed under a Swiss contract.  The employer was willing to be flexible on both counts in order to secure the right person.

Nevertheless, employers always need to take into consideration that fact that salary variations – plus additional costs such as relocation packages and additional benefits – mean that international hires can be significantly more expensive than seeking out local talent, particularly if an assignment is only for a few years. The challenge they face is striking the right balance between containing costs and attracting the talent they need.

Another challenge which faces recruiters are the wide variations in recruitment and talent management methods and policies across different European countries.  In one multi-national study of managerial behaviour, researchers highlighted the differences between the ‘symbolic’ Italians and French and the ‘functional’ English and Germans which manifest in managers from different countries having divergent communication and decision-making styles. The study found that many European companies would therefore like to standardise their managerial recruitment policies across their international offices. This would help ensure that Europe-wide corporate strategies can be successfully implemented and that the right mix of managerial skills is available within the company in the future. The study also found that a failure to standardise can lead to higher levels of managerial turnover, because non-national middle to high-level managers find themselves placed at a disadvantage due to these same cultural differences.

Naturally, there are a multitude of ways in which European countries are uniquely different from one another: culture, social structures, language and even regional differences within certain countries. In terms of the challenges which HR Directors working in larger organisations face, there is a delicate balance to strike. They have to operate with both a global and local mindset, including being culturally sensitive to some of the more subtle differences in individuals working outside of their ‘home’ country. In practice, this means creating specific local solutions, whilst still ensuring alignment with the global brand.

However, one unifying factor, regardless of country, is that English is emerging as the day-to-day working language across Europe, which in turn means a more international outlook. We find that talent from abroad is both sought after and welcomed as a solution, if a suitable candidate cannot be found locally.  As such, when it comes to the benefits of international diversity and the opportunity for employers to reach beyond Europe to attract top candidates, this can only be a good thing.

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