Feature Article February / March 2010

Staffing Challenges in a Complex Market

With the world’s second-largest economy, Japan continues to be one of the most important markets for global healthcare firms. Its ageing population and long life expectancies ensure that this will continue to be a priority location for many years to come.

However, it is incredibly hard to penetrate, and succeed in, the Japanese healthcare industry for a variety of reasons. Not surprisingly, recruitment in this market is also difficult and complex, but finding the right candidates can make the difference between a firm’s success and its failure.

The healthcare industry in Japan is influenced by several factors, not least of which is local government regulation. The government plays a very active role in the development and clinical trials of products, safety protocols and pricing controls.

Due to strict guidelines on what is considered acceptable clinical data, in the area of pharmaceuticals Japan suffers from a lag that ranges from one to seven years with only 30-40% of the top global products reaching the marketplace.

Further complicating matters are the Pharmaceutical Affairs laws requiring a pharmacist licence for many top regulatory or quality-assurance positions. With the recent regulatory reforms, however, policies are expected to open up the Japanese economy, with fewer regulations across industries and sectors.

In 2009, we saw the global financial crisis drive up the value of the yen around the world. This temporarily drove down local profits, but allowed for a string of acquisitions, such as Daiichi-Sankyo Co., Ltd.’s purchase of Ranbaxy, India’s largest pharmaceutical maker, and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited’s collaboration with the US-based Amgen Inc.

These deals underscored Japan’s relative lack in the areas of generic and proprietary drug development. While the country scores well on public-health metrics, it spends less on healthcare compared with most other developed countries, and so changes in the economy are less likely to affect the industry.

Driven by fears related to the H1N1 new influenza virus and more established forms of influenza, 2009 brought vaccine makers a boost in activity, while oncology continued to be a growth area for most pharmaceutical makers. Yet, Pfizer Inc.’s purchase of Wyeth Inc. and many similar deals resulted in hiring freezes and redundancies. Major new products were released, but this good news was countered by the closure of several local research facilities.

Increasingly, firms are working to develop and test products in simultaneous global trials and this is generating demand for multilingual candidates. Particularly fierce is the competition for English-speaking clinical research associate, regulatory and quality-assurance staff. Adding to the demand is the trend of Japanese firms to globalise, with overseas acquisitions and successful subsidiary development in North America and Europe.

In 2010, a string of high-potential products are scheduled to be launched, and it is safe to assume that increased headcount will go hand in hand with the expanded sales. Given the already tight candidate pools and intensified local competition for quality staff, it is more important than ever to identify and attract the top talent. The good news is that the healthcare labour market, usually perceived to be a domestic market, is becoming ever more receptive to new challenges.