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In the clinical trials industry, career development is more important now than ever. Burnout and turnover are rampant as the volume and complexity of training continues to increase.

2022 saw a 10% increase in ongoing clinical trials in 2021. But sites, sponsors and CROs are understaffed to handle this growth. Many research sites saw their turnover up to 50%and Clinical Research Associates consistently have a turnover of 24-29%.

Turnover in contract research organizations (CROs) and sponsors creates a constant pull to hire experienced staff from sites. This means sites no longer have enough staff to do their critical work on the front lines. Clinical trial schedule then delay, increasing costs and jeopardizing trial results.

But the clinical research industry can rise to these challenges. We need to start by expanding the types of candidates we recruit into clinical research. We can then focus on helping these candidates develop specific skills that will help them avoid burnout and develop their careers in clinical research, rather than leaving the profession.

Challenges in recruiting and retaining employees

Employee retention has been a problem in many industries since the Great Resignation; the Covid-19 pandemic has changed attitudes about quality of life expectations and work-life balance.

Employers can improve retention with tactics such as:

  • Recognition
  • Benefits of working from home
  • Competitive pay
  • Opportunities for career development

However, in the clinical trials industry, the importance of career paths lags behind other industries – especially at smaller research sites. The lack of formal career development often contributes to the flow of site staff to sponsors or CROs.

The funnel of potential new hires in the industry also lags well behind other industries.

It is difficult for applicants to learn about clinical research because its primary career paths are not recognized by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. and there are very few special educational paths in the career field.

Another hurdle is that CROs and sponsors typically require two years of experience to meet regulations—and those who do often don’t expect applicants to have a life sciences degree, as Lauren Ballina Chang pointed out at the Research Revolution conference.

If sites or sponsors limit their applicant pools with narrow experience or education requirements, they have a smaller pool of candidates to choose from, making it harder to hire—and hire diverse candidates.

And a lack of diverse staff can have a negative impact on patient diversity. A Tufts Study showed that sites with higher racial and ethnic diversity among staff members saw this reflected in the patients they enrolled.

Organizations like Fastrack Clinical Research and ACRP attempt to overcome the rigorous educational and career requirements with training programs for job seekers who have not previously worked in clinical research. But the industry should also be open to curious, passionate candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Career development to improve employee retention

Once employees join the clinical research industry, they need opportunities to develop their skills so they don’t end up in the same position and salary for years.

The continued growth and development of clinical trials allows clinical research professionals to focus on specific skills and customize how they would like to advance their careers. Professionals can focus on:

  • Technological skills
  • Management of hybrid and decentralized clinical trials
  • Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Industry needs to more clearly define the different competencies and career paths within clinical research so that all employees can build on their strengths and build a career plan that brings them satisfaction.

When employees have a clear career path, they are less likely to experience burnout and leave their positions—and they are better prepared to meet the unique challenges of the clinical research environment.

Defining career paths and competencies

Career development begins with defining career paths, responsibilities and competencies.

Historically, the clinical research industry has been inconsistent in terms of job titles, levels, and responsibilities. For example, a person performing the same set of tasks may be called a clinical research coordinator at one site and a research coordinator at another.

Because titles and levels are so inconsistent, it’s difficult for clinical research professionals to compare jobs, look up salary ranges, or know what specific skills to develop to move up the career ladder.

Some organizations have tried to combat this by building their own career frameworks that they share publicly. But industry-wide career frameworks are still rare and do not include every element of the modern clinical staff member’s job.

The Joint Task Force on Clinical Trials Competency (JTF) attempted to address this with Core Competency Frameworkintroduced in 2014 and updated in 2019. This framework has also been adopted by ACRP and other clinical research organizations, as Susan Landis shared at the Research Revolution event.

However, the framework does not reflect the heavy emphasis on technology and decentralized and hybrid trials that has emerged over the past four years.

Technology as a key new skill

The Core Competence Framework was updated in 2019 to “recognize the need to integrate technology-related improvements in the competencies required to conduct clinical research.”

Yet technology is still not included in the competency wheel, although staff are often expected to spend hours on technology training and learning new systems. 60% of sites say they use 20+ technology systems.

Clinical research staff, especially site staff, are often also expected to be IT support for participants struggling with trial technology. These skill sets do not necessarily overlap with the soft skills or medical knowledge that have historically made research coordinators one of the most valuable connections in a clinical trial.

The clinical research industry needs to update its job descriptions and expected skills to reflect changes in the industry. An ideal working framework for clinical research would:

  • Turn on the technology
  • Offer multiple advancement paths based on people’s talent and industry evolution
  • Define the different skills required for patient-facing and behind-the-scenes roles

Although the technology may require training, site-enabled technology can also eliminate the need for clinical research professionals to spend all their time on repetitive communication or manual documentation.

With technology, clinical research professionals can spend less time downloading attachments or faxing forms and more time on the skills they want to build: whether those skills are working with patients, analyzing data, designing testing or diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Reducing turnover with career development

The clinical research industry can often be fragmented and competitive. But sites, sponsors, and CROs can work together to solve the common problem of turnover and burnout.

The first step is to expand the pool of candidates from which we hire by removing the “two years of experience” barrier and considering employees from non-traditional backgrounds and newer training programs.

Once employees join the clinical research field, we can keep them there by offering them career ladders and clear frameworks for the skills they need to develop – including the technology skills needed for decentralized and hybrid trials.

Clinical research professionals can then choose their own path within the profession, whether that means becoming experts in science, data, technology or patient care. There’s room for us all.

Special thanks to Lauren Ballina Chang, Kimberly Jenkins, and Susan Landis for joining me on the Research Revolution panel that inspired this article.

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