Search and employ – how Chiron Corporation finds the talent it needs

Search and employ – how Chiron Corporation finds the talent it needs

Patrick J. Kiger

The biopharmaceutical industry’s intense competition for a small pool of elite job candidates means that Anthony Damaschino, staffing director for Chiron Corporation, has to be an innovative recruiting operative. How does the company find the talent it needs? It’s about developing the “persona.”

As director of staffing for Chiron Corporation, a Silicon Valley biopharmaceutical firm, Anthony Damaschino is used to filling jobs in scientific specialties that are so exotic and arcane that only a handful of potential candidates in the entire world would qualify to fill them. But one recent assignment really had his recruiting staff stumped. “We needed to hire a pharmacist for one of our labs,” he says. “Not someone with fancy research credentials–just a person with some pharmacy experience. You’d think that would be easy, right?” After trying Web-based job boards and numerous other methods, Damaschino’s team discovered, to their surprise, that the labor market for ordinary run-of-the-mill pharmacists is nearly as tight as it is for elite oncology researchers. They were forced to be considerably more creative.

“Two of our recruiters went down to the local Walgreen’s,” Damaschino says. “They talked to the pharmacists behind the counter–not to hire them, but to get their ideas. How would we get in touch with pharmacists? Where do pharmacists hang out on the Internet? If they were trying to hire another pharmacist, how would they go about it?” As it turned out, the Walgreen’s staffers offered some leads from their own personal network of colleagues, and while Chiron is still in the process of filling the job, the company now has resumes from bona fide candidates to consider.

That’s the sort of ingenuity that Damaschino has sought to instill in his first year and a half at Chiron, where he has been entrusted with an unusual mission. He’s not the first human resources professional hired to create an in-house recruiting operation from scratch. But he’s likely one of few who have had to create one at an already established, successful multinational company, let alone one in a mind-bogglingly complex technology business–biopharmaceuticals–where there is intense competition for a small pool of elite job candidates with highly specialized skills. And in a field where expiring patents continually force a company such as Chiron to develop new drugs and other products and get them to market, there’s little margin for hiring mistakes.

To deal wit those realities, Damaschino has devised a system that gives him strategic control while simultaneously allowing recruiters to work closely with managers in Chiron business units and grasp the intricacies of their work. He has also upgraded Chiron’s applicant-tracking technology. Perhaps most important, company recruiters now use focus groups and other research to develop a detailed image of the ideal candidate for a job, down to nuances such as which Web sites he or she might prefer. They then use tat profile to guide them to the most likely places to find the person.

“If you’re going to hire top scientists, you need to understand them–what books are on their shelves, what they listen to on the radio,” says the 35-year-old Damaschino, who confesses to sometimes stealing a peek at the desktop clutter of Chiron’s scientists as part of his research. “We’re trying to develop what I call a ‘persona.’ Most human resources people would call it a profile, but that implies tat you’re just looking at qualifications. A persona includes both qualifications and aspects of behavior.” He pauses and then laughs. “Also, it sounds more strategic, doesn’t it?”

Damaschino can afford a little self-deprecating levity. Chiron produces anti-cancer drugs, vaccines to combat life-threatening diseases such as meningococcal C, and tests that protect the world’s blood supply from HIV contamination. This spring, when the first reports emerged from Asia of the mysterious, potentially deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Chiron assigned a team of 15 scientists to search for a cure. “If you’re using our products, chances are that you’re really sick,” he notes. The market for medical miracles persists even in a stagnant economy, and last year Chiron posted a healthy $232 million profit on $1.2 billion in revenue.

At a time when many companies are agonizing about how to deal with layoffs, Damaschino faces the sort of challenge that many human resources managers would crave. Chiron has 3,700 people in 18 countries ranging from India to Italy. Over the next year, the firm will have to increase its workforce by more tan 10 percent. A recent list of Chiron’s current openings on Biospace.com had 89 positions, including a lab technician experienced in sterile handling procedures, a mechanical engineer to maintain temperature controls in labs and production facilities, a safety specialist qualified to track the health of human research subjects, and a manager to plan the marketing of Chiron’s cancer drugs.

While it may seem as if Damaschino is sitting on top of the world, running the job-recruiting operation for a booming biotechnology company isn’t easy. For one thing, the supply of talent in the industry is extremely tight. “Unemployment may be 6 percent in the overall economy, but there’s probably only a 1 to 2 percent rate in biotech specialties,” says Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources, a Silicon Valley-based human resources consulting firm. “Colleges aren’t producing enough science graduates, and people with experience are even harder to come by.”

To make matters more difficult, when Damaschino joined Chiron in early 2002, the 23-year-old company was just completing a radical transformation under then-CEO Sean Lance. It leapfrogged from being a research-oriented outfit better known for great science than business success to being an aggressive company tightly focused on bringing products to market in three key areas–infectious disease, blood-testing technology, and cancer. But even as Chiron rose to become one of the biggest biotechnology players in Silicon Valley–its $7.5 billion market capitalization is surpassed only by Genentech and Gilead Sciences–the company was struggling with recruiting methods that had not kept up with its growth.

For most of its existence, Chiron had clung to what Wheeler calls the “academic” model of recruiting. “There’s the equivalent of the biology department, the accounting department, and the English department, and an administration above them that is barely noticeable. The departments handle their own hiring, mostly by getting on the phone and working their own professional contacts. All of the biotech companies usually start out like that because the founders come from universities. The managers don’t like the idea of relying on corporate recruiters. Their thinking usually is ‘I’m a scientist and you’re not, so what the heck do you know about hiring scientists?’ Usually what happens is that once a company grows beyond a certain size and evolves from doing science to making products, they realize that they can’t just keep dipping into their Rolodexes, because they need people with skills the company doesn’t have. Chiron, though, stayed at that stage a bit longer than most, so they had some catching up to do.”

To solve its problem, Chiron hired a human resources professional with an unusual background. Damaschino, a Bay Area native, earned a political science degree at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He began his business career at human resources software maker PeopleSoft, in Pleasanton, California, where he worked in marketing and developed domestic and overseas customer-support staffs. “Instead of beginning with traditional touchy-feely stuff [in human resources], I was starting from an analytical, business-oriented view I think that gave me a sense of the big picture that’s really helped.” He later rounded out his skills by moving to Groundswell, a Pleasanton-based Web-portal firm, where as vice president of human resources he handled employee issues ranging from performance management to retention.

When Damaschino arrived at Chiron, he had a makeshift mess to clean up. The company was beginning to realize that its managers no longer had time to do their own hiring. It was trying to get the job done with freelance recruiters. The latter sat together in a row of cubicles at headquarters, waiting for managers in the business units to come to them with assignments. “The consultants didn’t really know anything about the business–who the managers were, what sort of needs the operation really had,” he recalls.

The arrangement had other drawbacks, too, says Master Burnett, an associate at Dr. John Sullivan and Associates, a Pacifica, California-based human resources consulting firm. “Outside recruiters tend to focus on what benefits them,” Burnett says. “Because they’re earning a commission, they’ve got an incentive to focus on filling the jobs with the highest salary level. But that may not be where the company has the most critical need.”

Damaschino quickly replaced the freelancers with a five-member staff of full-time recruiters, and made another important change. He dispersed them into Chiron’s various business units, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing and blood-testing products. That enabled them to sit in on meetings, talk frequently with managers, and gain some familiarity with what their hires actually did for the company. Burnett says this was a deft move on Damaschino’s part because it not only won the trust of the managers in those units, but also enhanced his recruiters’ credibility with the job candidates they were trying to lure. In a highly technical field such as biotechnology, “I don’t think there’s anything that impacts the recruiting process more than the ability to have a knowledgeable professional conversation with a candidate on that first call,” Burnett says. “You’re a lot more likely to grab that person’s interest.”

Before Damaschino’s arrival, Chiron’s haphazard hiring operation kept records and communicated mostly on paper printouts–an oddly antiquated approach for a Silicon Valley technology company. “There were a few contractors keeping data in Microsoft Outlook,” he says, “but that was about it?’ He remedied that by switching to a suite of Web-based software applications developed by Hire.com, which enabled managers and recruiters to access and share information about candidates quickly from their desktops.

Damaschino also set out to systematically analyze Chiron’s hiring needs. He quickly deduced that while the firm still needed elite scientists for its labs, the recruiting operation would help the company more by focusing on the technical talent required to manufacture the medicines and other products that resulted from the researchers’ discoveries. “Because Chiron is one of the companies with a reputation for science, a lot of times the researchers gravitate toward us anyway;’ he says. “And if there are only six or seven people in the world who can do something, it’s not that tough to figure out who they are and go after them. The hardest jobs to fill actually are the mid-level jobs–someone who’s got 10 years’ experience in pharmaceutical QA/QC [quality assurance/quality control], for example. There aren’t enough of those people to go around, and every biotechnology company wants them because you need to make products to make money.”

One way to acquire such talent is by raiding competitors, but Damaschino tries to avoid that if he can. “For the most part, I think pillaging is a losing proposition. If you steal other companies’ phone lists, they’re going to turn around and try to steal yours. It becomes just an endless loop?’ Beyond that, he worries that such hired guns may turn out to be poor fits at Chiron. “There’s nothing worse than working hard to get someone in here, and discovering that they don’t really buy into the company’s ideals and don’t feel like they’re a part of things,” he says.

Instead, he prefers to find job candidates who are already in the market, through carefully focused search methods. By doing focus-group interviews of Chiron employees, for example, Damaschino’s team learned that Ph.D.s prefer to listen to news programs on National Public Radio during their morning commute, as opposed to rock music or sports-talk stations. As a result, when Chiron conducted a job fair targeted at finding more quality-assurance professionals, the company publicized it through donor-recognition spots on a local public radio station. “We were hoping to get 100 people to show up,” Damaschino says. “We got 345?’ Similarly, Damaschino abandoned Chiron’s old practice of posting job openings on all-purpose Web sites such as Monster.com when focus-group research revealed that biotech professionals tend to visit specialized sites such as Biospace.com and Medzilla.com. “We immediately started seeing more quality applicants,” he says.

Chiron also has developed another subtle tactic for getting to potential job candidates before the competition has a chance at them. Damaschino’s team pays close attention to the rumor mill for hints of impending restructuring at other biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. When they recently learned that a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical firm might lay off 3,000 workers, for example, Damaschino quickly contacted that company’s human resources director. “I offered to save him a lot of money on outplacement,” Damaschino says. “Instead, he could refer his employees directly to us.” The New Jersey company readily agreed, and even set up a link on its outplacement Web site so that employees could send their resumes to a special e-mail box at Chiron.

Damaschino’s team also learned that not all Chiron workers needed an advanced science degree, or even a college diploma. Instead, many jobs in pharmaceutical production can be filled by laid-off workers from Internet companies or manufacturing firms. “There’s an untapped segment that nobody thinks about–people who’d never imagine that they could get into biotechnology, but would do an excellent job for you;’ he says

Chiron looks for such candidates through local organizations such as Berkeley Biotechnology Education, Inc., which retrains unemployed workers. Damaschino actually sees that entry-level labor pool as a potential source of more advanced technical talent down the line. “We provide $5,000 a year in education assistance to employees, and we’ve got 350 to 400 of them utilizing it right now,” he says. “Remember, not every hotshot developer at a software company went to MIT. You can work your way up through the ranks in biotechnology as well.”

The real test of Damaschino’s methods lies ahead, when the inevitable economic recovery makes an already tight market for talent even tighter. ‘The biotechnology companies were already heading into a serious talent shortage in 2000, when the downturn hit and actually eased the pressure,” Wheeler says. “But when the economy picks up again, we’re going to be back to the same problem, only worse.”

While that may make Damaschino’s work a lot more difficult, it’s unlikely to dampen his enthusiasm. “Recruiting, I think, is the absolute best part of human resources,” he says. “It’s one of the rare win-win deals in life, because you’re helping the company but you’re also helping the person. Human beings, after all, define themselves by what they do for a living. They think, ‘I’m a scientist,’ not ‘I watch Friends and drive a nice car.’ There’s nothing I like more than giving somebody a job.”

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Patrick J. Kiger is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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