Several years ago there was much talk about the talent gap affecting entry-level clinical research positions with the biopharmaceutical industry. Stakeholders within the industry with a vested interest in the clinical research associate (CRA) shortage helped address the gap using joint task forces who raised awareness of the issue. They also highlighted the industry’s expectation of the widely accepted two-year minimum experience requirement for entry-level positions, and how this exacerbated the problem of CRA shortages in face of high demand and low talent levels among entry-level CRAs.

What Is The Reason For The CRA Shortage At Entry-Level?

Data analyses and research for the literature has revealed some possible main causes of the entry-level CRA shortage..

The Two Years’ Experience Minimum.

It is widely accepted that entry level CRAs should have at least two years of experience in order to be accepted onto trials. Contrary to what one might think, CRAs are not the young, keen professionals so often encountered in entry-level positions in other industries. The average age of a CRA is 44 years old, with only 10% in the 20-30 year old age bracket, 27% being 30-40 years old, and 63% being over 40. This may be due to the fact that clinical research is not promoted nearly as much as you could be as a possible career path for students about to complete their further education.

Many of those who could become CRAs while they’re still fresh to the industry will spend years moving through various positions before they’re even aware of the potential careers within clinical research, and therefore it may take some time before they take up the necessary position and gain the required experience to become a CRA.

This makes life difficult for CROs. Their sponsors are not keen on employing inexperienced CRAs working on their trials. As a result, existing CRAs who are already working at full capacity become overburdened and face the possibility of burn out by increased workloads and trial complexities. The age trend can also be explained by the fact that reference data may include positions for CRAs of both junior and senior levels, with most falling requiring senior levels of experience.

High Turnover

High turnover rates among staff is a problem that is not unique to the clinical research industry and it’s not surprising that junior CRAs move on to other more senior positions once they have gained experience and become aware of the opportunities for career progression. The average turnover rate for CRAs is about 20%, and 48% of CRAs remain in their positions for one or two years before changing to senior positions.

CRAs who start at CROs are especially prone to high turnover rates due to expectations of salary increases in light of the fact that they have not benefited from salary increases in previous years. It’s hardly surprising that they will seek out new opportunities where pay and benefits are much improved and increased.

There is also the fact that they do not receive career development guidance from their employers, resulting in them feeling neglected and overlooked. This is often the catalyst for their searches for new positions outside the organization.

Growing CRA Jobs and Low Unemployment Rate

The high demand for CRAs inevitably leads to greater opportunities for CRAs and higher turnover rates. A few years ago the unemployment rate was 2.5% with CRA jobs on the increase. The CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) for CRA positions was 5.3%.

Clinical Trial Complexity and Growth

The combination of an increasing number of clinical trials along with greater complexity within them and the advent of eClinical technology has resulted in greater strains on a CRA workforce that is not large enough to cope with the demand.

In summary then, the CRA shortage is being caused by the barriers to entry, high staff turnover, and staff siphoning.