Outsourcing remains a buzzword in the programming sector, but the nature of this drive for efficiency is undergoing an evolution.
The reasons for outsourcing jobs in biometrics, as delegates to the Pharmaceutical Users Software Exchange Conference 2013 were told in mid-October, ostensibly remain the same as ever. It's a means of cutting costs, distributing risk and accessing a flexible pool of skilled resources to work on less mission-critical tasks, whilst allowing an internal programming group to focus on and develop other core competencies such as CDISC compliant analysis, or work on more complex summary tables.
The world of programming is always being flipped on its head as major companies decide that outsourcing to contract resource organisations (CROs) or offshore consultancies, rather than retaining in-house contractor talent makes more economic sense. As a result, the days of the contractor's nirvana could be running out. With more contract programmers available to take up the last few long standing contractor vacancies, this leaves a short-term abundance of skilled workers in the market. With this in mind, departments can stop the constant fire-fighting and focus on permanent roles within the business, which are now coming to the fore. Companies are no longer prepared to extend contracting positions beyond pre-agreed periods if more candidates become available to fill those permanent positions. Programming will always remain a candidate-driven area, so excellent programmers are likely to be on-boarded into a new permanent position within the blink of an eye. It's a move away from traditionally high-priced firefighting towards considered - and economically wise - fire prevention.
That's not to say that contracting is dead - far from it - because from a candidate perspective, it remains lucrative and attractive due to its inherent flexibility. When the demand rises, so will the need to have skilled, flexible contractors and, while outsourcing of programming to local CROs is on the increase, the more traditional form of the practice - that is sending work abroad to low cost centres - has hit a few snags that may intensify the need for more contractors again. The idea has been to send much of the basic programming jobs to low salaried, high expertise countries, such as India or China. In fact, it is estimated that India accounts for up to 30% of the pharmaceutical industry's biostatistics workforce.
These countries are providing a welcome resource pool in the pharmaceutical industry, but unfortunately the results are not always up to scratch. Companies may gain in the short term by this type of outsourcing, but they are beginning to realise that savings are far less forthcoming if they have to utilise internal resources correcting the projects once they return.
The key to making this a success is clearly consistent communication throughout the process as well as a well-oiled governance structure that allows for immediate escalation of issues with detailed operating procedures in place. If this is not achieved and the costs start to outweigh the benefits, jobs will return to Europe, which could boost the home-grown programming sector in the longer term.
In the interim, the bigger problem, and often an additional reason for outsourcing to other shores, is that there appears currently to be a dearth of programmers to meet the needs of pharmaceuticals and CROs. A concerning reason for this situation is that programming for the pharmaceutical sector is rarely seen as an automatic career choice. This is not a position that generally sells well to students and so there is a need for employers to find ways to make it more attractive and for there to be more awareness about the opportunities that joining the industry could bring.
Internships in pharmaceutical programming do exist, but they are few and far between and many larger sponsors of such programmes have either scaled them back or simply abandoned them. If these could be resurrected and if manufacturers and CROs were prepared to advertise more within the early academic sphere, programming could see a rebirth with a more stable function for the industry in future.
Kien-Sen Lee | Team Leader - Biometrics
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