When it comes to hiring in life sciences marketing, the cascading effects of the Great Resignation seem to have dissipated. Talent managers are finally seeing a reprieve from their biggest pandemic-era struggle, which for many was marked by a glut of openings and not enough qualified people to fill them.

With the professional pendulum having swung more toward “sellers” than “buyers,” HR directors should be having an easier time matching candidates to vacancies. Staffers, on the other hand, may not have as much to celebrate.

The job market has cooled, and the evidence abounds in this year’s MM+M Career and Salary Survey. Among the most striking reflections of that dynamic is a trio of data points: a downward change in marketers’ job-seeking tendencies, a rise in position longevity and a flattening of salaries.

Given these leading indicators all seem to be pointing in their favor, recruiters may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. However, organizations don’t get a pass when it comes to retention. The survey indicates a number of opportunities for improvement.

A total of 224 marketers — including 93 men, 128 women and three people who identified themselves as non-binary — participated. In the field from August to October, the survey drew a broad span of respondents. The average age was 47.5, with the oldest being 82 and the youngest 22. About a quarter of respondents work at biopharma manufacturers, while 45% hail from the agency world.

Boom times fade

To understand the state of career affairs circa late 2023, let’s travel back to late 2020. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, working-age adults across the country were reexamining their priorities on a massive scale.

As a result of this soul-searching, long-neglected family needs were placed ahead of professional aspirations. There were departures from corporate America, the embracing of entrepreneurial gigs, regular hopscotching from one industry to the next and, of course, early retirements. As in many other sectors, job migration became the top talent concern in pharma marketing circles.

“At the end of 2020 and during pretty much all of 2021, the job market in our industry was like we’ve never seen it before,” recalls Jaymie Staats, SVP and director of talent and culture for ConcentricLife. “The ‘war on talent’ — that phrase couldn’t have rung truer than it did in our industry.”

Not surprisingly, given the competitive nature of the job market at the time, the top-heavy ratio of open roles to candidates drove up salary ranges for certain positions. 

“In the past year-and-a-half or so, the market has definitely cooled back down to kind of regular, pre-pandemic levels,” Staats notes. “That is probably why we’ve seen those salaries level off a bit.”

To that point, a look back at marketers’ average salary from 2020 to 2021 shows an increase from $163,000 to $176,000 before a dip to $173,000 in 2022. This year’s average pay remains stalled at that latter sum.

Moreover, the number of respondents who said they intend to look for a new position in the next 12 months has fallen to 24.6% from last year’s tally of 30.7%. That’s coupled with a slight rise in the amount of time people are staying at their jobs: average time in position has grown to 6.7 years, from 5.6 in the 2022 survey.

All of this speaks to the aforementioned cooldown in the job market. Indeed, even a cursory search reveals there aren’t quite as many openings these days. That’s likely due in part to macroeconomic headwinds such as inflation, which has impacted clients, agencies and everyone in between.

Then there’s the COVID effect. After the initial pause in Q2 and Q3 of 2020, when clients put marketing spend on hold amid pandemic uncertainty, companies opened the floodgates in 2021. This led to a frantic, across-the-board hiring spree. It’s only natural that the pendulum would swing back in the other direction at some point.

“When there’s less demand, people aren’t getting as many calls from recruiters. There aren’t as many posts on LinkedIn from people they know are hiring,” Staats observes. “When the options aren’t as evident, people tend to feel less likely to change jobs. It’s not as top of mind.”

Precocious ‘youngsters’

Then again, the torrid market of two years ago has benefited this year’s workers in one significant way. As people quit or changed jobs in record numbers, the dearth of pharma marketing talent prompted hiring managers to expand their searches to individuals from outside healthcare.

“Especially in 2021, when the market was so hot, we were all looking for some of those transferable skills and what people from other industries could bring to the table,” Staats recalls, noting that she herself is an example: Before migrating to pharma-focused ConcentricLife about five years ago, Staats worked in traditional advertising agencies, including Publicis and Digitas.

Not only are there many more transplants such as Staats among the respondents to this year’s Career and Salary survey, but they also find themselves among the leaders in earning power. People who have been in the industry between three and five years registered an average salary of $167,182.

Why do members of this group, whose average age is 37, make more than their counterparts in either the 0-to-2 year ($87,981), 6-to-10 year ($138,419) or 11-to-15 year ($160,050) cohorts? One reason could be that people arriving from outside healthcare “bring years of experience in other advertising or marketing sectors. They’re joining pharma marketing, but they’re obviously not just fresh out of school,” Staats says.

Spotlight on retention

Execs may be staying in their jobs longer, but employers shouldn’t rest on their laurels. The results suggest that companies may want to focus on retention.

Respondents reported a drop in their prospects for internal advancement. Just 17.7% rated their prospects as “excellent” this year, versus the 19.0% who did so in 2022. The trend holds true for men and women alike.

Perceived pay versus peers has also declined: 11.2% said they believe they earn more than their counterparts, versus 14.5% last year. That suggests a non-small percentage of people suspect the grass may be greener — literally and metaphorically — elsewhere.

Nevertheless, companies’ retention efforts have likely helped lower the incidence of job-seeking behavior. “Especially after the historic job migration a couple of years ago, companies put more resources into retention,” Staats notes. “They’re looking at how they can increase employee engagement and make them feel like this is the place they want to be.”

That entails not only offering the usual benefits (a robust 401(k) plan) but also newer and unexpected ones (unlimited vacation, shouldering 100% of health insurance premiums). It also requires presenting each employee with more professional flexibility, whether that means offering them the freedom to rotate among client accounts and marketing campaigns or enhancing training and enrichment opportunities.

Equality a step back

But companies still need to keep an eye on equality. Frustratingly, the gender pay gap continues to widen. Men’s compensation averaged $199,095 and women’s $157,196, versus $194,395 and $155,977 last year. But while perceived pay was about equal between the genders in 2022, this year only 6.3% of women feel they outpace their peers, versus 16.1% of men.

Staats scoffs at the notion that talent directors are any less sensitive to this state of affairs, or that it’s become so common as to be glossed over. That said, companies need to keep the pedal to the metal in ensuring equal pay for equal work, as well as making sure their hiring is diverse from gender, racial and ethnic perspectives.

Speaking of DE&I, survey respondents reported their employers continue to struggle with finding BIPOC talent, with more than one-third citing the middle-levels as an area of particular concern. In what has historically been a predominantly white industry, the life sciences sector has made only incremental strides the past few years. Companies are at least emphasizing diverse recruiting and highlighting the need to open doors for nontraditional hires, even if results to date have been mixed.

From WFH to RTO?

Nor is it necessarily more generous remote-work policies that have kept employees from job-hopping. When asked about their benefits, 72.8% of respondents said their employers offer the ability for remote staffing, work from home or telecommuting. That’s down from 80.4% in 2022.

In some other industries, the insistence of CEOs on a full return to office has led to widespread employee pushback. Worse, a handful of famously anti-remote work CEOs — we’re looking at you, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg — threaten to usher in what some have termed a “redistribution.” In that scenario, individuals balking at the prospect of commuting full-time would stage walkouts or leave their companies entirely.

Staats doesn’t expect that it will come to this in healthcare marketing. She believes the decline in work-from-home flexibility likely has less to do with CEOs’ insistence on in-office work than on marketers’ growing preference for hybrid work schedules.

“It’s definitely a point some workers are looking for,” she explains. “They’re missing that in-person connection, but others have fully adjusted to the remote work lifestyle and it would be a deal-breaker for them.”

Hoping to strike that balance, some organizations say they’re retaining a remote/hybrid flexibility (about 37% say their companies offer collaborative work spaces, down from 40% last year). Still others have issued requests for two or three office days per week but otherwise permit working from home.

That said, HR pros aren’t exploiting flexible remote-work policies to gain an edge in salary negotiations, Staats reports. They’ve adjusted to the expectation that companies will be more open to letting people work where they work best.

“We do see it as kind of a perk, but it doesn’t have an impact on salary decisions,” she adds.

Invest in ‘intangibles’

So where should organizations invest in order to more effectively attract and retain talent? Per the survey results, workplace environment/culture now ranks as the second most important job factor overall. It eclipses benefits and is second only to salary in the pecking order.

That’s telling. While MM+M’s data support the notion that salaries are fairly standardized — that is, most people find paychecks to be similar across the industry depending on job level  — there is quite a bit more variance in the softer aspects of culture. “As you get into the higher ranks, you’re looking for the team you want to work with and the type of brand you want to work at,” Staats says. “People move to go to the next level, or for this or that reason. But the most important things are the culture aspect and the intangibles.” 

To read the 2022 Career and Salary Survey, click here.