About Chemical Innovation - Subscription Information
November 2000
Vol. 30, No. 38 – 44.
Succeeding in the Marketplace

Table of Contents

The new science of staffing

cartoon of chemists moving flaskToday’s free-agent scientists prove that “temping” is a good career move.

Today’s scientific professionals face different employment issues than their recent predecessors. In the 1970s and 1980s, large science budgets in academia and industry were common, and government spending was high. Then came the 1990s, and with the new decade, a new economy. Budget cuts, coupled with an increased demand for high-quality scientific personnel, helped usher in a new era in scientific staffing.

The days when science was supported for its own sake are all but gone. Many scientific managers now find themselves in the role of business manager. Forced to compete in a global market, managers face increased pressure to show value in their research to shareholders or business partners.

Many managers increasingly find themselves in the role of recruiter—finding candidates, interviewing and filling open jobs—in addition to their normal research duties. The unfortunate news for managers is that these trends are likely to continue. Employment predictions through 2006 show that the demand for talented scientific professionals will continue to grow at extraordinary rates (1). The good news is that companies have some options when it comes to staffing.

A staffing alternative

More and more companies are relying on outsourcing (using temporary employees) to supplement their regular workforce. They hire temporary employees for short-term projects as well as ongoing long-term assignments. When making hiring decisions, however, scientific managers must first consider whether their staffing needs are short- or long-term and if creating a permanent full-time position is the most cost-effective solution.

Temporary or contract employees can be used in many circumstances. They can fill in for absent employees or cover temporary skill shortages. Using temporary staff during peak work periods also lightens the burden for regular staff and makes the organization more efficient as a result. For example, temporary professionals in the sciences can handle surges in the high-volume screening and synthesis of potential new compounds to move special drug discovery projects to the next phase of evaluation or to clear the backlog of test samples. Temporary staffers are also ideal for specific, self-contained projects such as clinical trials. Finally, temporary employees can serve as an ongoing supplement to core staff.

Outsourcing can save money on employee wages and benefits without compromising quality—perhaps the most important factor for managers facing budget cuts and increased performance expectations. The additional staff can give managers the opportunity to complement the talents and expertise of their core staff with those of other skilled scientific professionals, because many contract and temporary employees offer expertise in specialized areas.

Finding free agents

Finding qualified personnel is often a daunting, time-consuming task. In 1998, the Wall Street Journal reported that 80% of top executives at major companies spent 11 hours or more per week on recruiting (2). Of those, 52% spent more than 16 hours a week. Most scientific managers cannot commit that kind of time to recruiting skilled temporary employees.

It can be especially difficult when the employees are only needed for a short-term assignment, when many employees are needed at one time, or when certain specialized skills are needed and spending weeks poring over résumés is not an option. However, the qualified talent available to fill temporary positions is plentiful.

Industry insiders in the staffing business have noticed a profound change in the way some of the best and brightest scientists, engineers, and technical staff are finding their next jobs. Many scientists are giving up full-time, permanent positions to venture out on their own as free agents. David W. Green, editor of Managing the Modern Laboratory, cites research showing that science professionals have discovered that contract positions afford them the freedom and flexibility to move their career ahead at their own pace (3). Working as free agents allows them to build skills in areas important to them and work with the employers where they think can do the best work. As an added benefit, the free agent lifestyle allows employees a better balance in their work and personal lives.

Staffing companies ease the burden

Many scientific managers rely on staffing service companies to locate talented professionals who are looking for temporary assignments. According to Carl Camden, executive vice president of field operations for Kelly Services, 91% of U.S. companies rely on staffing firms to maintain adequate human resources within budget (4).

A 1999 study of the free-agent workforce, sponsored by Kelly Services and conducted by EPIC/MRA of Lansing, MI, confirms the desirability of temporary assignments among American workers in all fields, including the sciences (5). The study included a telephone survey of a random sampling of 1000 people who were at least 18 years old. The survey found that 20% of the respondents were outside the traditional labor force, that is, they were “free agents”. For the purposes of the survey, “free agents” were defined as skill-driven workers. This definition includes freelancers, contract workers, and temporary workers. The survey revealed that the number of free agents within the United States has doubled since 1980.

Although the study reported that employees want more freedom, it specifically cited workers’ desires to be their own bosses without having to run their own businesses. They want to control their destinies, but they also want employers.

In some cases, free agents become permanent employees. Some employers and employees find a contract period to be mutually beneficial; they use this time as a low-risk method for assessing whether or not both parties are interested in making the commitment to a full-time job.

Working as free agents offers employees the best of both worlds. Hiring free agents offers cost-conscious employers fresh ideas and extra pairs of hands when workloads increase and deadlines loom.

Is outsourcing the best choice?

What projects and tasks are best suited for outsourcing? And what are the skills and characteristics of the most successful free agents? The Kelly Services survey revealed several keys to successful employer–employee partnerships:

  • Create positions for college-educated professionals. Of those who definitely plan to become free agents, 70% have completed college course work, and most of these free agents plan to continue their education to enhance their skills and advance their careers.
  • Identify challenging projects for temporary employees. Most (71%) of the respondents claim to “prefer work that provides an opportunity for growth, even if it is stressful”.
  • Seek assistance with entry-level assignments or with highly specialized work. The majority of free agents fall in the 18–24 and over-65 age categories and are suited to projects at both ends of the experience spectrum.
  • Target older workers in the candidate search. Because of the growing size of the senior citizen–retiree population in the United States, those interested in temporary work (14%) form a significant pool of more than 8.8 million highly skilled workers. Canada also possesses a wealth of senior talent.
  • Seek free-agent support for a variety of short-term, self-contained, well-defined projects. When those respondents who expressed interest in temporary or contract work were asked which jobs they would most likely consider in the next five years, 16% preferred project-to- project work.
  • Create part-time positions. About half (48%) of the respondents prefer working 35 or fewer hours per week.
  • Carefully calculate the duration of full-time assignments. Because free agents choose autonomy over the security of a permanent position, they need to make plans based on the duration their assignments. The survey found that 22% of respondents prefer changing employment every three or more years; 20% prefer new assignments every one or two years; and 25% opt for switching jobs more than once a year.
  • Offer competitive wages and benefits. Nearly half (41%) of potential free agents (29% “definitely”) indicate that they tend to turn down temporary assignments with lower salaries. Wages should be in line with the amount earned by the company’s permanent staff who perform the same or similar functions.
  • Offer health care insurance and other benefits similar to those enjoyed by permanent employees. Many, but not all, staffing companies offer these benefits to the temporary or contract workers they place with client companies. Some companies that hire temporary or contract workers directly (instead of working with a staffing company) provide these benefits as well.
  • Keep performance expectations realistic. Most (70%) of potential free agents generally avoid assignments that require them to work “too many hours for too little pay”. If a project consistently requires a temporary employee to work significantly more than a traditional 40-hour week, the possibility of dividing the assignment among two professionals should be considered. If one person can handle the assignment with occasional overtime, additional compensation should be paid for extra hours.
  • Work with a staffing company to tap into a qualified professional pool. A significant 28% of respondents said they would consider using a company that specializes in placing workers in full-time, temporary employment positions; 10% said they would “definitely” consider using such a firm.

It’s one thing to understand the assignment parameters and employee types that promise the best outsourcing results in the laboratory and science setting, but applying this knowledge in real life presents additional challenges. That’s where scientific staffing companies play an instrumental role.

The evolution of scientific staffing

The idea of using contract employees to help out in laboratories and science settings is not new. Until the mid-1980s, temporary scientific staffing was handled through executive search firms and traditional temporary help companies. But most of the industry still relied on their human resources department or other internal resources to recruit, screen, qualify, and hire new employees.

In the mid-1980s, staffing firms dedicated to serving the science and technology industries began to open their doors. In the next few years, these companies made appearances at trade shows and conferences, promoting the advantages of using contract scientific employees on a part-time or full-time basis.

In these early years of scientific staffing, however, many scientific placements still followed the traditional trend, evolving into a “temp-to-hire” service in which more than half of staffing-service employees were eventually added to client companies’ payrolls.

Today, that trend is changing.

Enter the staffing company

The needs of employer and employee have become more complex and varied, and in many cases, employers and employees need staffing firms to provide more than just traditional placement services. Staffing companies ease the hiring process by counseling employers on job structure and competitive wages and benefits, as well as by evaluating and recruiting the most qualified free agents to fill positions. They work with employers to narrow the candidate pool, schedule interviews, screen candidates, do the background checks, and manage the hiring process. (See box, How KSR does it.)

Once a company decides to use a temporary professional, the candidate usually remains on the staffing company’s payroll. The staffing company tracks the employee’s time, issues paychecks, and handles all payroll taxes, workers’ compensation, and insurance deductions.

As the customers’ needs change, scientific staffing companies must adapt to meet the new demands. In today’s highly specialized workplace, employers must not only fill positions, but fill them with quality employees who have the relevant skills and knowledge required to do the job right.

Career satisfaction survey

To learn more about its customer’s needs, KSR sponsors the R&D Magazine–Kelly Scientific Resources Career Satisfaction and Salary Survey (6). The 1999 survey elicited responses from 1650 scientific and engineering professionals. Most respondents are happy in their work as scientists.

Almost half of the respondents (47%) do not think that their employers offer sufficient training and professional development opportunities to help them succeed and advance in their careers. Almost half (48%) said that the biggest concern on the job is keeping current with technology.

Of the scientists with managerial duties, 68% indicated that locating and hiring qualified scientists continues to be a problem. To address the latter issue, KSR and R&D Magazine have teamed up to create The NetWORK, a partnership to put job seekers in touch with employers. Readers of R&D Magazine supply personal referrals (6), and KSR provides the network to get people in touch with the managers who want to hire them.

The need for training

In an age when the pool of knowledge is increasing faster than ever before, there was a surprising trend in this year’s survey—fewer and fewer employers are willing to pay for continuing education. The number of respondents who said their employer will not pay seminar or conference fees increased almost one-third from previous years. Furthermore, the number of respondents who said that their employer provides in-house training dropped almost 23% from previous years. This is happening while employees say their biggest concern in the workplace is keeping up with technology (7).

For scientific employers to remain competitive, they must provide the skills and knowledge that employees need to meet the demands of a fast-paced work environment. This means continual updates of employees’ scientific, technical, and personal skills. This strategy in turn helps companies attract and retain the very best scientific employees to staff the labs of today and tomorrow.

As the career satisfaction survey indicates, finding the time and means for training is an increasingly difficult task as managers are asked to make the most of all the resources they are given. These concerns have been looming for years, and they are universal.
Scientific staffing resources on the Internet
Want to find out about other agencies that specialize in free-agent scientists? Here are some Web sites to get you started:

The American Staffing Association’s Web site lets you search for member agencies by region, skills required, and type of position (temporary, temp-to-hire, long-term, and contract help). www.staffingtoday.net

Aerotek recruits and places scientific, engineering, and medical workers on a contract, direct hire, or temp-to-hire basis. They also have a division for nontechnical workers; and they have recruiting centers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. www.aerotek.com

Lab Support is a division of On Assignment, a company that also provides health care and environmental staff. Lab Support places short-term and long-term free agents at all levels, from laboratory technicians to senior-level scientists. www.labsupport.com

For do-it-yourselfers, there is the Contract Employment Weekly, an information exchange that specializes in technical, engineering, and information technology workers. www.ceweekly.wa.com

(All sites were accessed on August 17, 2000.)

—Elizabeth A. Mitchell and Nancy K. McGuire

Online education

KSR recently began addressing these issues with investment in a new training technology that makes advanced training available without a serious impact on employee productivity. Kelly’s Science Learning Center (SLC; www.sciencelearning.com) offers industry-specific coursework via the Internet and the latest Web-based training technologies.

The interactive, multimedia, online training campus is available to anyone with Internet access. As an added bonus, KSR employees receive a 30% tuition discount and can earn tuition credits. The courses can be taken any time, day or night, whenever it’s most convenient for the user.

Course offerings range from technique to protocol to standards, in several classifications, including laboratory and chemical calculations, personal development, and management training, as well as OSHA-related courses. Some of the courses include FDA Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), Good Clinical Practices (GCP), and the only online, eight-hour HazWOper (hazardous waste operations) refresher course recognized by OSHA as meeting their requirements for hazardous waste refresher training. KSR plans to expand SLC’s online offerings to other professional and technical disciplines to meet customers’ needs.

The industry-specific courses offered through the SLC are particularly attractive to the increasing numbers of researchers shifting industries in midcareer and applying their skills in new fields (e.g., changing from food science to pharmaceutical research) and to those who are new to a field or struggling to keep up with changes. This kind of training can considerably decrease the amount of time laboratory managers must spend with new hires, preparing them for the nuances of their clinical trials or research projects.

Web-based education is still a relatively new concept, and some users may shy away from the idea for fear that the quality may not match traditional training methods. In fact, the opposite is true. Technology-enhanced learning with sound, video, and interaction has been proven to increase knowledge retention over conventional classroom instruction in many cases (7).

Of course, one of the major benefits for employers is the low cost. The training programs are Web-based and can be accessed at any time. “One of the biggest selling points for Kelly’s SLC,” said Norman Fraley, distance learning manager at Kelly Scientific Resources, “is that this kind of training is extremely cost-effective. The material is consistent; all learners are tested on the same material for the same course; there is no cost to secure a training room, computer equipment, or a person to lecture. Over time, those things really add up.”

Another benefit for employers is that they experience less employee downtime and therefore more productivity. Most importantly, Web-based learning programs allow employees to demonstrate and document that they have mastered each course. Using online tools, employers can monitor student progress and maintain an active roster of classes that students have taken and passed.

Employees consider online training a benefit, rather than a time drain. Training improves their chances of advancement, and it is viewed by many as a good investment in their career development.

“In short, employees using computer-based training are happier, better trained, better motivated, and ultimately more productive than their counterparts who participated in traditional training programs,” Fraley said. “At the same time, their employers are happy because per-employee costs are considerably less than those incurred for live demonstrations. Cost reductions from 30 to 60% are not uncommon.”

Training the next generation

Kelly Scientific Resources’ Future Scientists program is a scientific apprenticeship program that helps connect students and entry-level scientists with jobs, internships, and research opportunities at the country’s major chemical, petrochemical, and biotech companies. Through this program, science students and their faculty advisers obtain hands-on experience with KSR’s industry partners, some of the most prominent companies in the industry.

The best part? The program is offered at no cost to universities, professors, and students. The program is customized by each branch office to fit the needs of local customers and academic partners.

For industry partners, the program benefits include

  • reduced recruiting costs for entry-level and internship positions;
  • access to qualified students and recent graduates;
  • very little effort required to recruit, interview, and hire qualified candidates;
  • collaboration with cutting-edge projects and trials at universities; and
  • increased visibility in the academic field.

Several program components have been implemented successfully across the country, including résumé preparation workshops that have been given to more than 350 students on 15 campuses.

Coming up: A full-service resource

What can customers expect from scientific staffing companies in the future? Organizations will get alternative staffing solutions and top-quality training resources. As staffing companies shift their focus to include consulting, they will become resources for handling human resource-related issues, management issues, skill analysis and development, and career development for the scientific industry.


  1. Jock, C. P. KSR Whitepaper, “Managing Laboratory Staffing Issues”. www.kellyscientific.com, “Whitepapers” link (accessed Aug 31, 2000).
  2. The Wall Street Journal, Jan 20, 1998, p 1.
  3. Green, D. W. Managing the Modern Laboratory 1998, 3 (1), 11A–16A.
  4. Camden, C. T. Free Agents by Choice. The New Democrat, March–April 1998, p 16.
  5. The Free-Agent Workforce Has Grown to More Than 24 Million Workers”, Kelly Whitepaper, March 15, 1999. www.kellyservices.com/l (accessed Aug 31, 2000).
  6. Contact Jill Marie Lavine at R&D Magazine, 630-320-7174; jlavine@cahners.com.
  7. KSR Whitepaper, “1999 R&D Magazine/Kelly Scientific Resources Career Satisfaction Survey”. Prepared by R&D Magazine and Cahners Research Services for Kelly Scientific Resources. www.kellyscientific.com, “Whitepapers” link (accessed Aug 31, 2000).

Rolf E. Kleiner is senior vice president of the Science and Healthcare Services Group for Kelly Services (999 West Big Beaver Rd., Troy, MI 48084-4782; 248-362-4444; www.kellyscientific.com). He received a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in natural sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. His training is in freshwater ecology, but he has spent his postgraduate career pioneering the concept of temporary employment for scientific professionals. He launched Kelly Scientific Resources in 1995.

cartoon of scientist interviewing another with a pipette setup
"I'm way behind in my QC paperwork. Would you mind titrating a few samples while I ask you the interview questions?"


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