Economic crisis continues some CR sites see gains

Better qualified people apply for CR jobs

When clinical trial industry experts look back at the 2008-2010 period, perhaps they'll see a few bright spots in an otherwise uncomfortable year.

For some clinical trial sites, increased federal funding for research as included in the 2009 stimulus package meant a little more business than they might otherwise have seen. For others, the economic crisis meant first-time salary and staffing cutbacks.

"One of the interesting things is we're getting a lot more research right now," says Elizabeth Hill, PhD, an associate chief of staff for research at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, NV. Hill is an editorial advisory board member for Clinical Trials Administrator.

So the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System has had new clinical research (CR) jobs to fill, Hill says.

"We need more study coordinators, and I've had a couple of experienced study coordinators apply," Hill says. "They were laid off somewhere else and are looking for jobs, so it's been easy to recruit new staff."

This is a turnaround from previous years when it's been hard to find experienced CR staff, particularly those with nursing backgrounds, she notes.

"It seems like you can find experienced staff now," she adds. "I know the hospital in general had openings for nurses and there were many more nurses who applied than there were positions open."

Typically a clinical research office has found it difficult to hire new employees who have three years or more of experience, but that situation is turned around, says Ramesh Gunawardena, MBA, director of clinical trial operations in the clinical trial office of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Beth Israel is a Harvard-affiliated facility.

"There's a bigger pool now of more experienced people that we can tap into," Gunawardena says.

This has been a silver lining in the CR job market, he notes.

"What comes with experience is the learning curve is much shorter," Gunawardena says. "They come on board fully aware of the industry and the language, jargon, and documentation," he adds. "They can hit the job running with departmental-specific and institutional-specific training in place, and their quality of work is a lot better, so we certainly benefit from that."

But even for CR professionals who are fortunate to have jobs at academic or health care institutions, the news has been fairly bleak.

Many hospitals and academic institutions made across-the-board major cost-cutting changes in staffing and salaries that have had an impact on research units, as well.

Harvard University-affiliated medical centers have frozen all merit pay for the next year or two, Gunawardena says.

"Beth Israel has decided for the upcoming fiscal year that salaries will be frozen, and that's a first step," Gunawardena says. "Then they've made minor benefit-related changes."

For instance, staff no longer can cash in vacation time, and retirement fund matching contributions have been frozen, he adds.

In past years the CR office has sent its staff to at least two conferences per year, and this also has been cut.

"The restrictions are that the conferences have to be local, in New England, and within driving distance," Gunawardena says. "They won't just send you across the country, but they'd allow people to do it on their own and pay for it on their own."

Since CR professionals need to stay up-to-date on regulatory changes and other issues, the CR office participates in teleconferences and other less-expensive educational measures, he adds.

"We still can pay for those kinds of things, as long as it doesn't require other expenses like accommodations and travel," Gunawardena says.

One measure that has made staffing clinical research offices more difficult involves an across-the-board hiring freeze, he notes.

Before a CR director can hire study coordinators to replace staff or to work on new studies, the director has to obtain a requisition to hire someone through the position control committee, Gunawardena says.

"We have to justify an operating account for the position," he explains. "If you have a grant or clinical trial with money coming in, then you have to provide data about how much you've gotten with the award and how much of the staffing expense will be covered."

Hiring at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, also requires justification.

"You have to justify every position you hire and you have to justify even the positions you lose," says Stephen L. Kopecky, MD, a physician in cardiovascular diseases and internal medicine and a professor of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester.

There have been more people applying for clinical trial jobs, Kopecky notes.

"We're seeing more qualified people apply for jobs, which is nice for a change," he adds. "We've also started seeing more requests for applications from headhunting firms that are looking for certain positions."

It's been a rough year for people in the clinical research industry, notes Janet F. Zimmerman, MS, RN, an assistant clinical professor and coordinator of the clinical trials research track at the College of Nursing and Health Professions of Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.

"I keep tabs with friends I worked with in industry, different CROs, and there's been tremendous downsizing," Zimmerman says. "The individuals who are being let go are people who are in clinical work, which is unusual."

Another result of the current economic crisis is that some CR professionals who lose their jobs or who want to be prepared in case they lose their jobs might choose to return to college to earn advanced degrees.

"We see more students, but a lot of it depends on whether or not the students have financial assistance from their employer," Zimmerman says. "The interest is there for students to go back to school at the graduate level, but it's expensive."