Quintiles’ CEO Thomas Pike recently described his firm’s struggle to attract and retain Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) and people with certain other skillsets as “truly a war on talent,” while Ciaran Murray, CEO of fellow Contract Research Organisation (CRO) Icon, has said similar.
Gerald DeWolfe, President of CRA Assessments and an ex-clinical monitor himself, told Outsourcing-Pharma the problem extended beyond these two companies, and that with a current shortage of CRAs, every CRO and sponsor which has its own clinical trial monitor is in this fight.
“The current market allows CRAs to move from company to company almost at will,” he explained. “Retention of talent continues to be a major challenge. Any time a CRA becomes unhappy with their site assignments, boss, pay, lack of promotion, travel schedule, etc., they have an immediate out at just about any other company.”
Increased salaries, increased bill rates
With the power firmly in the hands of the CRA, “salaries continue to rise significantly as well as associated sign on bonuses,” he added.
“I have heard of some CROs offering $15,000 sign on bonuses. I would likely expect that CROs would be focusing on trying to be able to increase the bill rates they charge their clients to minimize this impact on margins.”
As to how much CRAs cost CROS, DeWolfe offered anecdotal evidence that “the lower end salary for a study coordinator progressing to a CRA is in the $60-$70,000 range” in the US.
“For experienced CRAs, the vast majority with more than two years are well over $100,000 per year with some climbing to $130,000 and more. When I started in the industry in 1998, I started at $32,500 for PPD - I did not have any CRA experience, so was very lucky to get in.”
The industry is beginning to address the situation, according to DeWolfe. One way is through his firm’s web-based simulation that can be used by companies during the interview phase to evaluate the competency of potential CRAs, rather than focusing on retention.
“The challenge for the companies is to be sure the CRAs they interview can not only ‘talk the talk,’ but also ‘walk the walk’ related to their monitoring skills. Historically, CRAs have learned how to interview very well no matter what their actual monitoring skills may be,” he told us.
“This program can be very successful and the companies see longer term stability of the CRA remaining with the company.”
He added the simulation can also help companies evaluate current CRAs, and look at trends across their entire CRA population.
“The results of our simulation can be compared across the entire CRA population due to the fact that every CRA monitors the exact same data at the same virtual site. This allows the companies to develop custom remediation plans that reinforce a company’s commitment to that CRA.”
The service is not free from challenges, however, as pharm and biotech firm “still have a desire to see CRAs with at least 2 years’ experience,” he continued, “so getting the CRAs resourced to a study can take a while and leads to significant costs to the CRO for non-billable CRAs.
“However, the current shortage has likely forced these Sponsor companies to accept more CRAs developed by the CROs,” which he said was a positive trend and would help expand the percentage of CRAs coming from industry monitoring programmes.
Reducing CRA monvement
“We are the only firm offering the simulation in which we fully reproduce the site environment and evaluate the CRA based upon the monitoring notes they produce ,” DeWolfe said, adding around half of the large CROs have used CRA Assessments’ programme.
“Our goal is to have a majority of CROs and Pharma/Biotechs that have their own CRAs using our pre-hire simulation,” he said.
“I believe this would significantly reduce the amount of movement from one company to another,” he added, though admitted this is a long-term goal. “The CRAs that can interview well, but are less competent in their monitoring skills, would risk not being able to qualify at another company.”