China's domestic Healthcare & Life Sciences (HLS) sector has experienced unprecedented growth in the last five years, especially in terms of investments, innovation acceleration and business expansion.

Just some 15 years ago, the Chinese domestic pharmaceutical sector was focused primarily on generic drugs, replicating the success of global off-patent medicines and driving commercial success. In recent years, however, the approach has changed to pharmaceutical innovation, therapies and breakthrough advancements ‘in China, for China’ to ‘in China, for global.’

Recently, we saw Eli Lilly in a licensing agreement regarding a pre-clinical asset from Fosun pharma. Among the global list of the top biotech IPOs in 2020, six were Chinese biotech companies, which raised a total of over US$2.7 billion. Considering what we know of the market, we should expect more exciting news in 2021.

These sector trends have resulted in high talent mobility among domestic pharmaceutical players and multinational corporations alike. According to PageGroup's Talent Healthcare Survey 2020, which was conducted among senior leaders with over 15 years of industry experience, over 80% of our respondents considered joining a domestic company in the healthcare field.

Related: Talent mobility: An emerging hiring trend in Healthcare and Life Sciences

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Already one of the largest healthcare markets in the world, China is now set to become one of the key drivers for global pharmaceutical innovation. Driven by favourable government policies towards the healthcare sector and the abundance of capital market investment resources, this rapid development has resulted in talent gaps and emerging jobs that have never existed in China before.

Coupled with the rapid augmentation of new technologies, such as gene and cell therapies and mRNA vaccines, these have led to massive talent deficits in China’s HLS market, especially for drug discovery, clinical development, Chemistry, Manufacturing and Controls, as well as the biomanufacturing scope. As such, the global talent pool becomes a significant source of candidates for some jobs, and mobility is essential. 

When it comes to the Chinese pharma and biotech market, I have noticed several trends, specifically in the HLS sector: 

  • Overseas Chinese with long-time careers abroad are coming home to participate in fast-growing innovations within the biotech sector. Companies are preferentially hiring candidates with a Chinese background to ensure a cultural fit

  • Senior-level talents, both locally and globally, are leaving multinational pharma companies, where they have reached a career ceiling, for a more dynamic domestic pharma and biotech environment.

  • The contracting model is relatively new, and some overseas returnees on temporary assignments in China are subject to regulations from authorities. With that said, the overall market has the potential to grow in the coming years.

  • As Covid-19 lockdowns minimally impacted China in early 2020, employees returned to offices between April and May at full capacity. However, some multinational companies adopted flexible working arrangements in accordance with their global policies.

When it comes to internal talent mobility — or cross-functional mobility within the company — we have seen such examples in the pharma and biotech sector here in China, but more among middle- to senior-level roles. Possible transition happens between research and business development or the sales and marketing functions.

However, as the HLS sector is highly science- and technology-driven, some jobs are being created following business scale up (the company moving from the clinical to the market stage) and industry development (launching a cell therapy line). These roles cannot be filled by internal mobility, so hires must come from outside the market. 

For overseas Chinese talents, especially for those who moved to the US in the late 1980s or early 1990s and have been developing their careers in big multinational pharma or leading academic institutions, moving back to China in a senior leadership role equates to new career prospects.

They go from being an employee to becoming a business leader and entrepreneur. They also take on more prominent positions within a multinational team. Another critical factor for this type of move would be a passion for joining the ‘innovation in China for Global’ trend.

Related: The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company

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Due to a lack of qualified candidates based in China, our clients have had to reach out to overseas Chinese talents to fill skill gaps in the biotech industry. 

A candidate-driven biotech market 

The vibrant Chinese biotech industry is lacking talent for innovative therapies. Due to gaps in the domestic training system and a lack of qualified candidates based in China, our clients have had to reach out to overseas Chinese talents to fill these skill gaps. 

As a result, China’s HLS sector has become a highly candidate-driven market. Companies wishing to attract high-calibre talents, both from locally and abroad, are offering competitive compensation packages. Attractive cash and equity offer act as incentives for professionals to join the biotech industry. 

For our candidate pool, the HLS sector is an exciting field for prospecting talent. However, it also comes with various unseen challenges. In our daily practice, we focus on not only checking off boxes against a candidate’s CV or aligning industry-level compensation, but we also look at the candidate's culture fit with the future employer. 

For talents making the first move from established pharma to the biotech industry, we put extra effort to provide professional guidance on understanding the equity part of the package. We also evaluate the long-term stability of the biotech startup and analyse values and culture fit with the founding team and style of the leading investor. This is especially relevant for scientific and medical background talents whose value system is different from other professionals. 

For our clients, this emphasises the importance of engaging with a trusted professional. The candidate will act as an extension of the business team, represent the business and employer’s brand correctly in this highly competitive market. In addition, a recruitment partner should be able to explain the company’s story and future goals, distinguish its pipeline from competitors, and motivate the right candidate to fit. 

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According to PageGroup's Talent Healthcare Survey 2020, which was conducted among senior leaders with over 15 years of industry experience, over 80% of our respondents considered joining a domestic company in the healthcare field.


Related: Workplace flexibility crucial for leaders to get right: report

Return to the home country 

Understanding the Chinese culture and being proficient in the language is crucial to developing the Chinese biotech and pharma market. Therefore, unlike five to 10 years ago, pharma and local biotech companies now prefer ethnically Chinese talent. These candidates include both local and overseas Chinese who are proficient in the language and familiar with the culture. 

One big trend in the last five years has been returning Chinese professionals living overseas to drive local innovation. They are moving back to China for leadership roles in the fast-growing healthcare sector, bringing their global expertise with them. Considering the fact that many of our clients are developing new therapies ‘in China for global,’ hiring senior leaders with international clinical and regulatory experience is critical for their business success. Therefore, this shift is especially prevalent for Chief Science Officer or Chief Medical Officer positions. 

It is crucial to understand that the industry is still facing challenges related to international relocation to China because of travel and visa restrictions. For instance, it may take a senior professional with a non-Chinese passport in the healthcare industry, whose necessity for business advancement is critical and verified, up to six months to get all the documents prepared and have a work visa issued.

Even after all that, the possibility of getting the work visa rejected is still high. With the global effort to accelerate vaccinations, we stay updated on the Chinese government’s step-by-step relaxation rules for incoming business travel. As an interim solution, some of our clients hire remotely for functions like Clinical Development, Regulatory and Business Development with a commitment to relocate once the borders open. 

Change is coming 

Despite challenges in global mobility caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, candidates interested in careers in China should network with qualified healthcare-dedicated recruiters. Mobility to China has never looked better with its highly advanced industry and multitude of opportunities.

Ultimately, the authorities will lift the restrictions. Therefore, it is vital to have valuable industry insights from a trusted recruitment partner to find the right opportunities beforehand. Also, it would be wise for junior and middle-level talents to accumulate experience and develop a robust professional foundation with global multinational companies before moving into the fast-growing biotech sector in China. 

As China’s healthcare market is talent-driven, we have fewer candidates than available jobs. Thus, clients need to cooperate and compromise on some of the requirements for hard-to-find talents. We recommend that clients provide flexible solutions to engage suitable candidates coming back to China from overseas while it is still challenging to enter China due to Covid-19 restrictions.

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