Joining a Trend, Scientists Increasingly Say ‘Call My Agent’

Reposted from Science Magazine's News Focus, 16 January 2004

Temporary work doesn't just mean doing clerical work; a growing number of high- level scientists are discovering that they like the independence it offers

When cell biologist David Voehringer finished his postdoc in the Stanford University laboratory of Leonard Herzenberg, he faced a chasm in his career. Ready to strike out on his own, Voehringer drew up a list of contacts and made inquiries. But the market in 2001 was crashing, and highly qualified candidates like him had flooded it with résumés. He recalls the search for an independent job as "really the first time that a lot of us are faced with chronic rejection."

But Voehringer did get an encouraging call--from a representative at Lab Support, a Calabasas, California-based agency that places scientific personnel in temporary assignments. Would Voehringer be interested in a 3-month stint at a biotech company called Sugen, a South San Francisco firm specializing in signal transduction research? It wasn't exactly what Voehringer was looking for, but he took the job anyway. He picked up industry experience and ultimately landed a permanent position at Cell Biosciences, a biotech company based in nearby Palo Alto.

Like Voehringer, a growing number of high-level scientists are discovering the merits of temporary employment. Gone are the days when temping meant serving as a clerical worker, filling in for a secretary on vacation. Instead, industry and government employers are now recruiting science experts on a contingency basis to complete projects, add support at times of peak demand, or simply test for a good fit before bringing in a worker permanently.

Scientists, for their part, are using temporary positions to get a toehold in the marketplace or to jump fields in midcareer. Some need visa sponsorship, which a temp agency can offer. Others want a chance to take care of children, pursue hobbies, or enter into quasi-retirement.

"People are recognizing that the dynamic of the economy is far different [from what it was] a generation ago," says Steven Berchem, vice president of the American Staffing Association (ASA) in Alexandria, Virginia. "Businesses are being more conservative about hiring. And more and more workers are seeking flexible work arrangements." Indeed, the number of contingency workers is rising across the board. And some scientists who find the traditional academic track too rigid are using temping as a new way out.

Guns for hire

According to ASA, which conducts quarterly surveys of temp agencies, the number of workers performing temporary or contract work through staffing agencies reached 9.7 million in 2002, up from 800,000 in 1986. Of those, about three-quarters transitioned to permanent jobs.

The numbers do not include job-seekers who bypass agencies and enter into direct consulting contracts with employers. To get an estimate of this group, Kelly Services, a Fortune 500 temp agency based in Troy, Michigan, conducted its own surveys. Kelly found that companies have been increasing their hires from "the free agent workforce"--defined as temporary and contract employees, freelancers, independent professionals, and consultants. This pool increased from 22% of the U.S. workforce in 1998, to 26% in 2000, and 28% in 2002--amounting currently to 30 million people.

Scientists are part of this trend, but just how big a part isn't known. "Nobody has the data yet," says Berchem, whose group is now conducting an analysis based on unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There's general agreement that big pharma is leading the way in the use of temps, with biotech and food-related companies a distant second and third. Many drug companies need a fluid workforce. "A company will call and say, 'I need a high-level organic-synthesis chemist right now who will not necessarily continue on after the project gets to the next step in the pipeline,' " says Shelly Carolan, vice president of Lab Support. Most drug companies making such requests are based on the U.S. East Coast, which translates into a booming local market for scientific temp positions.

Different challenges can be found on the West Coast, where start-up biotech prevails. For these smaller firms, "the issue is burn rate," says Chris Jock, director of Kelly Scientific Resources, a specialty arm spun off in 1995 as part of the larger temp agency, which employs about 5000 scientists globally. Biotech start-ups have to grapple with where and how fast they spend limited investment dollars. More often than not, success hinges on only one or two technologies. If they hit a snag, the company has to pare down expenses fast, usually laying off employees. If the product takes off, the company has to expand quickly to stay ahead of competitors.

Biotech is just beginning to recognize temp workers as a solution, as indicated in a report published in October by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration and Bureau of Industry and Security. The agency conducted a survey of 1031 U.S. biotech firms, finding that nearly half of the small firms (fewer than 50 employees) reported that more than 20% of their biotech-related positions had been unfilled for more than 3 months (compared with less than 1% for companies with more than 50 employees). Lacking the capital to offer signing bonuses and other big cash incentives, these companies had to look for more creative ways to attract talent.

Enter the contingency scientist. With computer specialists leading the way, these temp workers and consultants have become part of the standard workforce at biotech firms, which are willing to meet high compensation demands, as long as workers accept a limited time commitment. In 2002, biotech companies employed 94% of their computer specialists on a contract basis. In fact, the hiring rate of contingency computer scientists rose 21.8% from 2000 to 2002, according to the government survey.

New temp employees with the requisite skills can jump from company to company, commanding a high salary as they hone their skills. Alex Chang, an account representative at Kelly Scientific, tells how he helped launch one of these stars. A company, which Chang declines to name, was having trouble finding someone with expertise in both molecular biology and computer programming. Chang, himself a Ph.D. in molecular biology, says he came up with a perfect match: an individual who, "knowing his net worth, liked to work on a contractual basis," and a company that wanted to hire a temporary employee. Kelly is now an agent for this scientist, soliciting employment proposals that the worker might not have time to seek out himself.

Chemists and other clinical specialists who can help out with drug trials are also in hot demand. They are popular at companies that specialize in clinical testing of potential drugs (called contract research organizations, or CROs). Pharma firms had been outsourcing to CROs but having difficulty "bringing projects in on a timely basis and within budget," says Ray Cooke, director of clinical research at Kelly Scientific. Slippage in the late phases of a drug trial can cost the company as much as $1 million a day, Cooke says. So both pharmas and CROs are relying on temps to speed the projects through.

Ground-floor view

There are advantages to short-term employment, but also uncertainties. Take the case of analytical chemist Mei Hu, who says her experience as a temporary scientist was both opportune and ever-changing. She arrived from Japan in 1999 to work as a postdoc at Xenobiotic Laboratories, a biotech company in Plainsboro, New Jersey. She then got an offer from pharma giant Roche, but the company, faced with dozens of equally qualified applicants, hesitated because Hu needed approval to transfer her H1 visa from one employer to another. So she registered with a temp agency, which became her visa sponsor, enabling her to move to a new job.

"Although [the work] was temporary, it was much better than not having any chance at all," says Hu. Within 3 years of temping, and amid several offers of permanent employment, she ended up accepting a permanent job at Amicus Therapeutics, a small biotech company in North Brunswick, New Jersey.

Often scientists choose contingency work for personal reasons. Voehringer points to colleagues at Sugen, who used their temp positions to get back into the workforce after staying home with children--for example, a nurse who used the opportunity to transition into the biotech market.

But perhaps the fastest rising group of temps are aging baby boomer scientists. Not quite ready to retire, they see contingency work as a way to keep employed while having more free time for family or other interests. And as they go into full retirement, the demand for high-tech workers is likely to rise, abetted by the normal expansion of technology's need for skilled workers. "In a couple of short years, we will probably be facing another labor shortage," ASA's Berchem predicts. "That bodes well for highly educated people who can essentially write their own ticket."

But there are disadvantages to temporary employment. Apart from the instability, benefits may be meager; some temp agencies will not pay for health care or offer retirement plans. Although companies such as Kelly and Lab Support say they do provide competitive health and retirement perks based on the length of time that workers remain with the agency, often these packages fall short of what permanent employees would receive.

One of the most vexing issues a science temp must deal with is proprietary information. If a temp employee develops something brand-new, who owns it? Generally, an invention belongs to the employer, but the degree to which the individual shares in the rewards varies from company to company. "We spell it all out in the contract," says Nancy Allen-Smith, vice president of human resources at BD Biosciences in San Jose, California. Contracts also often include a prohibition on sharing information from one company with another or--in the case of consultants--on working for direct competitors.

Social restrictions, which are more subtle, also separate temps and permanent employees. If a company gets too chummy with a temp worker but denies benefits and perks, it can become vulnerable to a lawsuit claiming that standard employee benefits have been withheld from what amounts to a full-time worker. Some companies try to steer clear of such risks, for example, by limiting certain social events--such as Christmas parties--to permanent employees only.

Despite such negatives, however, both employers and employees are upbeat about the future of temping. "For niche workers who are educated," says Carolan of Lab Support, "the forecast is very bright."

Trisha Gura is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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