Today's Top-5 "Hot Skills" at Life Sciences Companies

Published: April 2018


We recently surveyed 45 US-based life sciences companies to learn more about today’s most critical skills in the industry, especially those worthy of commanding significant base salary premiums.

In today’s super-charged job market, life sciences companies often struggle to attract and retain people who possess critical clinical and business infrastructure skills. And as the results of our recent Radford US Hot Skills & Competency Survey show, in a growing number of cases, companies aren’t afraid to dish out significant base salary, bonus and/or equity award premiums for those skill sets. While a large number of companies still don’t believe in paying special premiums for “hot skills” (more on this below), among those that do, the five hot skills listed in this article currently command the largest base salary premiums.

5. Medical Doctors

Average base salary premium paid for this skill: 14.5%

Every compensation professional in the life sciences sector knows medical doctors usually command a strong premium in the market. This is the case because finding doctors with the willingness, skills and experience to make the leap into the world of drug development is incredibly hard. What’s more, biotechnology companies often have niche clinical needs, which further narrow down the pool of available doctors. As a result, the average base salary premium for medical doctors in 14.5%.

T-3. Therapeutics

Average base salary premium paid for this skill: 15.0%

Therapeutics is a branch of medicine devoted to designing comprehensive treatment options for patients, which often focuses on understanding interactions between different drug combinations, but can also include assessing how drugs can be used in tandem with surgical options, dietary changes and behavior changes, among other items. As new surgical techniques, novel medical devices and increasingly customized/targeted therapies proliferate, life sciences companies find themselves in need of talent with therapeutics experience. As a result, the average base salary premium for this skill is 15.0%.

T-3. Oncology

Average base salary premium paid for this skill: 15.0%

A medical practitioner in the field of oncology deals specifically with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. As the number of biotechnology companies focused on cancer treatments continues to grow rapidly and becomes increasingly specialized, the hunt of talent with specific oncology skills is becoming more challenging. This is truly a case where demand is growing much faster than supply, creating an average base salary premium of 15.0% for oncology skills.

2. Immuno-Oncology

Average base salary premium paid for this skill: 16.7%

What if our bodies were able to fight cancer on their own without the need for harsh treatments such as chemotherapy? With all the negatives of traditional chemo and radiation therapy, many companies are attempting to find ways to make our bodies beat cancer through the immune system. This is a much less invasive way to treat the disease and is seen as a promising treatment, particularly for certain types of cancers such as advanced melanoma. Therefore, individuals in this rapidly emerging field are paid an average base salary premium of 16.7%.

1. Network Management

Average base salary premium paid for this skill: 17.5%

Surprise! You probably weren’t expecting network management skills to be at the top of this list. Honestly, neither were we. However, when you think about it, this makes sense for two big reasons. First, drug development, especially when it involves gene-based therapies, is an increasingly data and technology-driven endeavor. Second, many life sciences companies find themselves operating in key technology hubs like Silicon Valley and the Northeast, and must fend off stiff competition from technology firms. As a result, the average base salary premium for network management skills at life sciences companies is a whopping 17.5%.

Are Skills-Based Premiums a Good Idea?

While some life sciences companies provide base salary, bonus and/or equity premiums for key skills from time to time, you should always be careful when paying extra to employees based solely on their knowledge in one particular area. What happens if your business requirements change? What happens when a particular skills shortage ends? And what happens if your expensive expert in one area can’t translate their knowledge to other challenges? In every case, you run the risk of paying someone top dollar for a skillset that will inevitably get cheaper over time and may no longer be as critical to your business. This could lead to serious internal pay equity problems as well as an allocation of resources to a small group of employees with limited long-term contribution prospects.

With this in mind, we counsel companies to think beyond their short-term talent acquisition and compensation needs when considering hot skills premiums. Consider the following strategic questions before handing out oversized pay packages:

  • Where do we have skills gaps in our organization? Are these acute technical issues related to a specific project, or a broader organizational and long-term need?
  • Do we have the resources to catalogue the specific skills employees possess? Would we find this information valuable and could we integrate it into our compensation and talent programs?
  • Do we already pay employees with key hot skills more than their internal and/or external peers? Are they paid at these levels because of the specific skills they possess or are they simply performing better than others?
  • Are we losing employees at our company with key hot skills to the competition at a higher rate than normal employee turnover across the rest of the organization? If so, is compensation the problem or is it something else like team culture or product vision?
  • What mechanisms are in place to educate HR, compensation and recruiting professionals to ensure their understanding of key hot skills is strong enough that they can make informed decisions about how far to go with pay premiums?
  • If we decide to pay employees extra for their skills, what are the consequences of our decisions when those skills become more commonplace? Do we have a long-term strategy to migrate our hot skills premiums into the broader company strategy?

Life sciences companies of all sizes and stages of development should ask these questions to ensure their talent acquisition, compensation and business strategies align before awarding special pay premiums. Ultimately, every company will need to make its own decision around how best to reward and hire for critical skills.

Interested in Learning More?

To purchase the Radford US Hot Skills and Competency Workbook, featuring data from all 229 technology and life sciences companies who participated in the 2017 Radford US Hot Skills Survey & Competency Survey, please click here.

For general questions on this survey, other Radford survey products, or Radford’s compensation consulting capabilities, please write to our team at


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