Search and Employ

The director of staffing for Chiron Corporation, a Silicon Valleybiopharmaceutical firm, Anthony Damaschino is used to filling jobs in scientificspecialties that are so exotic and arcane that only a handful of potentialcandidates in the entire world would qualify to fill them. But one recentassignment really had his recruiting staff stumped. “We needed to hire apharmacist for one of our labs,” he says. “Not someone with fancy researchcredentials–just a person with some pharmacy experience. You’d think thatwould be easy, right?” After trying Web-based job boards and numerous othermethods, Damaschino’s team discovered, to their surprise, that the labormarket for ordinary run-of-the-mill pharmacists is nearly as tight as it is forelite oncology researchers. They were forced to be considerably more creative.

    “Two of our recruiters went down to the local Walgreen’s,” Damaschinosays. “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 dopharmacists hang out on the Internet? If they were trying to hire anotherpharmacist, how would they go about it?”

    As it turned out, the Walgreen’sstaffers offered some leads from their own personal network of colleagues, andwhile Chiron is still in the process of filling the job, the company now hasrésumés from bona fide candidates to consider.

    That’s the sort of ingenuity that Damaschino has sought to instill in hisfirst year and a half at Chiron, where he has been entrusted with an unusualmission. He’s not the first humanresources professional hired to create an in-house recruiting operation fromscratch. But he’s likely one of few who have had to create one at an alreadyestablished, successful multinational company, let alone one in amind-bogglingly complex technology business–biopharmaceuticals–where thereis intense competition for a small pool of elite job candidates with highlyspecialized skills. And in a field where expiring patents continually force acompany such as Chiron to develop new drugs and other products and get them tomarket, there’s little margin for hiring mistakes.

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

“If you’re going to hire top scientists, you need to understand them–whatbooks are on their shelves, what they listen to on the radio.”

    “If you’re going to hire top scientists, you need to understand them–whatbooks are on their shelves, what they listen to on the radio,” says the35-year-old Damaschino, who confesses to sometimes stealing a peek at thedesktop clutter of Chiron’s scientists as part of his research. “We’retrying to develop what I call a ‘persona.’ Most human resources people wouldcall it a profile, but that implies that you’re just looking atqualifications. 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 producesanti-cancer drugs, vaccines to combat life-threatening diseases such asmeningococcal C, and tests that protect the world’s blood supply from HIVcontamination. This spring, when the first reports emerged from Asia of themysterious, potentially deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Chironassigned a team of 15 scientists to search for a cure. “If you’re using ourproducts, chances are that you’re really sick,” he notes. The market formedical miracles persists even in a stagnant economy, and last year Chironposted 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 wouldcrave.

    Chiron has 3,700 people in 18 countries ranging from India to Italy. Over thenext year, the firm will have to increase its workforce by more than 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, amechanical engineer to maintain temperature controls in labs and productionfacilities, a safety specialist qualified to track the health of human researchsubjects, 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, runningthe job-recruiting operation for a booming biotechnology company isn’t easy.For one thing, the supply of talent in the industry is extremely tight. “Unemploymentmay be 6 percent in the overall economy, but there’s probably only a 1 to 2percent rate in biotech specialties,” says Kevin Wheeler, president of GlobalLearning Resources, a Silicon Valley-based human resources consulting firm. “Collegesaren’t producing enough science graduates, and people with experience are evenharder 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 underthen-CEO Sean Lance. It leapfrogged from being a research-oriented outfit betterknown for great science than business success to being an aggressive companytightly focused on bringing products to market in three key areas–infectiousdisease, blood-testing technology, and cancer. But even as Chiron rose to becomeone of the biggest biotechnology players in Silicon Valley–its $7.5 billionmarket capitalization is surpassed only by Genentech andGilead Sciences–the company was struggling with recruiting methods that hadnot 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, theaccounting department, and the English department, and an administration abovethem that is barely noticeable. The departments handle their own hiring, mostlyby getting on the phone and working their own professional contacts. All of thebiotech companies usually start out like that because the founders come fromuniversities. The managers don’t like the idea of relying on corporaterecruiters. Their thinking usually is ‘I’m a scientist and you’re not, sowhat the heck do you know about hiring scientists?’ Usually what happens isthat once a company grows beyond a certain size and evolves from doing scienceto making products, they realize that they can’t just keep dipping into theirRolodexes, 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 somecatching up to do.”

    To solve its problem, Chiron hired a human resources professional with anunusual background. Damaschino, a Bay Area native, earned a political sciencedegree at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He began his businesscareer at human resources software maker PeopleSoft, in Pleasanton, California,where he worked in marketing and developed domestic and overseascustomer-support staffs. “Instead of beginning with traditional touchy-feelystuff [in human resources], I was starting from an analytical, business-orientedview. 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-basedWeb-portal firm, where as vice president of human resources he handled employeeissues ranging from performance management to retention.

    When Damaschino arrived at Chiron, he had a makeshift mess to clean up. Thecompany was beginning to realize that its managers no longer had time to dotheir 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 formanagers in the business units to come to them with assignments. “Theconsultants didn’t really know anything about the business–who the managerswere, what sort of needs the operation really had,” he recalls.

The real test of Damaschino’s methods lies ahead, when the inevitableeconomic recovery makes an already tight market for talent even tighter.

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

    Damaschino quickly replaced the freelancers with a five-member staff offull-time recruiters, and made another important change. He dispersed them intoChiron’s various business units, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing andblood-testing products. That enabled them to sit in on meetings, talk frequentlywith managers, and gain some familiarity with what their hires actually did forthe company. Burnett says this was a deft move on Damaschino’s part because itnot only won the trust of the managers in those units, but also enhanced hisrecruiters’ credibility with the job candidates they were trying to lure. In ahighly technical field such as biotechnology, “I don’t think there’sanything that impacts the recruiting process more than the ability to have aknowledgeable 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 keptrecords and communicated mostly on paper printouts–an oddly antiquatedapproach for a Silicon Valley technology company. “There were a fewcontractors keeping data in Microsoft Outlook,” he says, “but that was aboutit.” He remedied that by switching to a suite of Web-based softwareapplications developed by Hire.com, which enabled managers and recruiters toaccess and share information about candidates quickly from their desktops.

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

    One way to acquire such talent is by raiding competitors, but Damaschinotries to avoid that if he can. “For the most part, I think pillaging is alosing proposition. If you steal other companies’ phone lists, they’re goingto 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 atChiron. “There’s nothing worse than working hard to get someone in here, anddiscovering that they don’t really buy into the company’s ideals and don’tfeel 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 doingfocus-group interviews of Chiron employees, for example, Damaschino’s teamlearned that Ph.D.s prefer to listen to news programs on National PublicRadio during their morning commute, as opposed to rock music or sports-talkstations. As a result, when Chiron conducted a job fair targeted at finding morequality-assurance professionals, the company publicized it throughdonor-recognition spots on a local publicradio station. “We were hoping to get 100 people to show up,” Damaschinosays.

    “We got 345.” Similarly, Damaschino abandoned Chiron’s old practice ofposting job openings on all-purpose Web sites such as Monster.com whenfocus-group researchrevealed that biotech professionals tend to visit specialized sites such asBiospace.com and Medzilla.com. “We immediately started seeing more qualityapplicants,” he says.

    Chiron also has developed another subtle tactic for getting to potential jobcandidates before the competition has a chance at them. Damaschino’s team paysclose attention to the rumor mill for hints of impending restructuring at otherbiotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. When they recently learned that a NewJersey-based pharmaceutical firm might lay off 3,000 workers, forexample, Damaschino quickly contacted that company’s human resourcesdirector. “I offered to save him a lot of money on outplacement,” Damaschinosays. “Instead, he could refer his employees directly to us.” The New Jerseycompany readily agreed, and even set up a link on its outplacement Web site sothat employees could send their résumés to a special e-mail box at Chiron.

    Damaschino’s team also learned that not all Chiron workers needed anadvanced science degree, or even a college diploma. Instead, many jobs inpharmaceutical production can be filled by laid-off workers from Internetcompanies or manufacturing firms. “There’s an untapped segment that nobodythinks about–people who’d never imagine that they could get intobiotechnology, but would do an excellent job for you,” he says.

    Chiron looks for such candidates through local organizations such as BerkeleyBiotechnology Education, Inc., which retrains unemployed workers. Damaschinoactually sees that entry-level labor pool as a potential source of more advancedtechnical talent down the line. “We provide $5,000 a year in educationassistance to employees, and we’ve got 350 to 400 of them utilizing it rightnow,” he says. “Remember, not every hotshot developer at a software companywent to MIT. You can work your way up through the ranks in biotechnology aswell.”

    The real test of Damaschino’s methods lies ahead, when the inevitableeconomic recovery makes an already tight market for talent even tighter. “Thebiotechnology companies were already heading into a serious talent shortage in2000, 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 sameproblem, only worse.”

    While that may make Damaschino’s work a lot more difficult, it’s unlikelyto dampen his enthusiasm. “Recruiting, I think, is the absolute best part ofhuman 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. Humanbeings, 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’snothing I like more than giving somebody a job.”

Workforce, June 2003, pp. 64-68Subscribe Now!