How to Attract and Retain Clinical Research Associates

By Craig Heywood, Real Staffing

It’s no secret that the demand for clinical research associates (CRAs) continues to grow in the United States. There was already a shortage before the pandemic for reasons ranging from a lack of clinical graduates to the demanding nature of the work. Now there is even more hesitation due to security concerns related to travel, on-site exposure, increased workloads and changing personal priorities.

Whether a study is conducted directly by a clinical trial sponsor or through a contract research organization (CRO), recruitment and retention of talent will continue to be highly competitive. One trend to alleviate this challenge is to turn to contract workers. A 2020 talent trends study by consulting group Mercer found that 77% of executives surveyed believe freelancers will significantly replace full-time employees over the next five years.

Supplementing permanent employees with contract CRAs has many benefits, including allowing businesses to adapt to changing industry demands in the current climate. Because the dynamics have changed – it is now a candidate-driven market – it is imperative that pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device organizations find new approaches to attracting and retaining qualified talent. Here are some strategies that can not only help attract high-quality candidates, but more importantly, engage and retain them within your organization.

Go beyond competitive salaries

The most effective way to attract CRA talent is to understand the current market rate, which has evolved over the past two years, and offer competitive compensation. Too often, companies lose sight of rising wages and salaries, causing experienced employees to seek out other opportunities that are willing to pay what they’re worth. Companies that perform regular temperature checks, at least every 12 months, can speed up the hiring cycle, save money and attract more candidates. Since salaries vary by region, it’s also worth looking locally, and some companies find it helpful to compare salaries to those of other life science roles.

In addition to keeping pay rates in mind, a few other strategies for attracting CRAs include:

  • Explore various talent streams: Most sponsors and CROs prioritize years of experience when hiring CRAs, preferring experts who can seamlessly step into the role. But companies should also open their recruiting campaign to emerging and diverse staff who have the right training, basic skills and certifications, but who may not have on-the-job experience. Not only will they attract more applicants, but they will also save money from salary cuts.
  • Highlight the value of the project: Another opportunity to attract applicants is to promote the actual project. Too often, employers focus discussions with potential employees on the basics – roles, responsibilities, project duration, salary, and candidate qualifications. This is a missed opportunity to promote the importance of study, its real-world implications, and the benefits to an individual’s career path. While the definition of research innovation is constantly evolving, most projects have selling points that can be presented to applicants.
  • Consider employee mental well-being: Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for CRAs to be overworked, sometimes logging 60 or even 80 hour weeks, with a lot of time spent on the road. Because overtime pay is often not enough to compensate for burnout, companies are increasingly implementing initiatives that increase flexibility and support and decrease hours and stress. These should be used as selling points during the interview and hiring phase. Offering remote opportunities or shift flexibility can show that the company values ​​balance for workers. Another incentive is to provide travel schedules in advance so that employees can better plan their personal lives.

Combat Talent Rotation

A recent BDO survey of CROs revealed that the biggest challenge is managing increasing levels of turnover, especially for CRAs. Again, compensation was cited as a predominant factor, and organizations should review their pay scales and bonus schedules relative to other national and local organizations. This is especially important for contractors who may not have the ability to ask for raises. Other programs that can help retain or re-engage employees include:

  • Get to work from the start: Integration is an essential but often overlooked initiative. According to Gallup analytics, one in five employees report that their onboarding was poor or they received no onboarding at all. While it may not be realistic for organizations to offer the same level of onboarding to a contractor as to a permanent employee, an abbreviated version that covers company-specific processes and procedures can help them to start up.
  • Prioritize feedback and communication: Performance reviews are another important retention tool, providing an opportunity to engage with employees to discuss topics such as salary, career goals and development. Depending on experience level and length of engagement, a good cadence might be at the one-month, three-month, and six-month periods. Some employers conduct quarterly reviews, especially if the contractor is working on a pivotal study that may last for years. As contractors move between employers where processes may be handled differently, a two-way feedback loop can help all parties make the necessary adjustments for a productive working relationship.
  • Encourage professional development: Providing growth and professional development opportunities to interested employees can help reduce turnover. In addition to moving up the ranks to a senior CRA position, there may be opportunities to gain experience in different therapeutic areas. For entrepreneurs, this can inspire them to re-engage for future study. One way to ease the transition to a new role is to ensure that all contractors have the proper tools and training to do their job, especially when it comes to using specific technologies.

Clinical research has many strong selling points, including many job opportunities, especially in the United States, where 32% of registered studies worldwide take place according to But it also comes with some challenges. Organizations must minimize demands through training, work-life balance and ongoing support and maximize benefits including competitive salaries, career growth and job satisfaction. By doing so, they will be in a better position to not only attract candidates, but also to keep them engaged for years to come.

About the Author:

Craig Heywood is Vice President of Brand at Real Staffing, a provider of expert staffing solutions for the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device industries in the United States. Heywood and his team bring value to clients by recruiting hard-to-find specialist positions in areas that include regulatory, clinical, biometrics and engineering. Heywood began his career in staffing in 2011, progressed to a management role and was instrumental in building Real Staffing’s presence on the East Coast. Heywood was named to the Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) 40 under 40 list in 2021.

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