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With Management Slots Filled, Firms Now Compete For Staff-Level Bioinformaticists

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MINNEAPOLIS--Starting salaries between $60,000 and $90,000 for a junior-level professional with just two years' experience might seem extraordinary in some industries, but not where experienced bioinformaticists are sought. The reason: highly skilled software engineers are in short supply at a time when demand is skyrocketing.

The shortage of qualified bioinformatics professionals is creating intense competition among recruiting firms and their clients to find and sign the right candidate. To further complicate matters, many companies want a combination of skills and experience that isn't easily found in one person. When that perfect candidate is found, sometimes after as much as a yearlong search, companies are willing to do what it takes to get that candidate to sign an employment contract.

BioInform spoke recently with three biotech industry recruiters in the thick of the bioinformatics hiring frenzy. All agreed that pharmaceutical, life sciences, and biotechnology companies' current pursuit of software engineers is a resurgence of similar activity they saw three years ago. At that time companies were going after top management talent to run newly formed in-house bioinformatics groups. Now, with those management teams in place, the focus has shifted to securing a solid group of experienced software engineers.

Work that needs to be done now exists in a wide range of companies, from tiny start-ups with little capital to huge operations with nearly inexhaustible resources. They run the gamut from biosoftware to pharmaceutical to genomics companies.

Years ago, many of the largest and most well known companies could attract premier talent on their name alone. But the playing field has changed. Big-name organizations compete directly with innovative internet companies for the best talent, according to headhunters who said this change makes their task of finding and signing the right person even more challenging.

Amy Lurier, an executive recruiter with TechFind in Natick, Mass., with more than 14 years' experience, told BioInform that many companies are looking for a golden combination of expertise, experience, and education. Requisite technical expertise includes familiarity with the Unix operating system, programming languages such as C++, Java, or Perl, and relational databases such as Oracle and Sybase. They also want "the perfect mix of leadership, creativity and communication ability," Lurier observed.

Molly Ryan, a recruiter with more than 10 years' experience, who conducts searches for Double Helix of Santa Fe, NM, concurred with Lurier's assessment. "Most clients are looking for very specific skill sets. Yes, it's difficult to find the right combination of computer science and biology. It's out there, but competition is fierce," Ryan said. She asserted that because companies are searching for the same skill set and experience, the market has been extremely tight for several years, and will remain so for several years to come.

She predicted, however, that one new trend may loosen the market, albeit only slightly: a new batch of graduates with bachelors and masters degrees in relevant fields has entered the job market. "A number of people are emerging from several interdisciplinary programs at schools such as Penn State, Boston University, Stanford, and others, so we are seeing more of the skills and backgrounds companies want," Ryan said. "But these are junior people entering the market and they have very little, if any, real work experience," she added.

Junior-level PhD candidates are also in high demand despite their lack of actual industry experience. And despite the apparent trend for academics to move to industry, it can be difficult for a recruiter to get someone with a PhD to consider making the leap. "They're involved in interesting research projects and have solid connections with great professors, so they don't want to move," said Doug Clark, principal of Bioleader, an executive recruiting firm in Portsmouth, NH.

Demonstrating just how tight the market is, junior people and PhDs in academia are being recruited and receiving offers despite their lack of industry experience. In fact, some may even become the object of a bidding war, with competing companies trying to best each other by offering the highest salary.

Since small startup bioinformatics or genomics companies can't offer the kind of salary that big pharmaceutical companies can, some have designed compensation packages with unique perks to increase the appeal of their offers. Perks being offered to attract top candidates include stock options, additional time off, payment of relocation expenses, sign-on bonuses, and attendance at major conferences or special training sessions. Some employers have even approved short-term telecommuting arrangements for nonexecutive candidates.

Although salary is critical to experienced candidates, too, the quality of life that accompanies a career move has become a prominent consideration in their decision. These candidates want a quality of life that is as good or better than what they would be leaving. According to the experts an appealing location, good schools, an interesting project, and a chance to use the latest technology can attract candidates. If presented with multiple offers that are similar, an experienced candidate may base a decision to accept a specific offer upon the perceived overall quality of life.

What's next

Recruiters said they have little doubt bioinformatics is a hot career. Professionals with the right mix of skills and experience are in demand and can pick from a plethora of opportunities in companies of all sizes, working on a variety of projects. Few will have to settle for noncompetitive salaries.

Looking to the future, the executive recruiters all predicted that the demand for professionals with bioinformatics expertise will explode in the next four to five years. Thus, the current shortage of experienced professionals is going to get much worse.

Companies competing for the limited number of candidates available now may want to consider this a wake-up call, said the headhunters, suggesting that perhaps it's time to consider a more proactive role in reducing the shortage of bioinformaticists. For now, Lurier had some advice for employers: "If you find someone who's a good fit, even if it's the first candidate, don't wait to interview others; offer that person the job. If you wait one or two months and go back to offer the position, it's likely the person will have accepted a job somewhere else."

--Voncille Meyer

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