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Business & Regulation Profession, Advanced Medicine

Let’s Talk About Talent

Credit: Interviewee supplied

What does your role involve?

Our mission is to recruit the future pipeline of Vertex employees. My role focuses on early and emerging talent, which covers two main areas. The first is a focus on programs for students to explore careers in biotech, such as internships, co-ops, fellowships, and so on. The second is attracting emerging talent without a degree, who may not have previously thought about or been exposed to the biotech industry. In both cases, we can help people to develop the skills they need.

I’m passionate about my work because, just as Vertex is building the next medicine for serious diseases with unmet need, my team is working on building our next leaders. We take our job seriously! My team also focuses on the full-time experience and development of early and emerging talent once they join the company. We work hard to attract and hire the talent, but we also need to retain them. It is important to ensure that people feel as if they are constantly learning and supported in their career development.

What different programs does Vertex offer?

We have a global suite of programs. In the US, we have a summer internship program that lasts around 10 weeks, and we also offer co-op programs. Co-ops are very common in the Boston area since there are some great universities here that build six-month co-ops into their degree programs. In the UK, we have industrial placements and apprenticeships across many functions.

We also have “flagship programs,” which have a very specific strategy to recruit and build certain skills, with a view to hiring talent in a short-term range. We call them “flagship” because they are very targeted. One of our longest running flagship programs is our MBA program within the commercial organization; it will enter its eighth summer in 2024. In this program, we bring MBA students who are between their first and second year of business school onboard for a summer internship. They can end up working on a variety of real work projects. Last year, we had an intern working on a therapy adoption marketing campaign – they focused on the real-world application of the therapy and demonstrating our commitment to that patient population. Another student worked on a mock commercial launch, learning tons of lessons from different functions that will be used as we launch our new gene editing therapy for sickle cell disease.

Our flagship programs also include fellowships. Our Vertex Fellows program is a good example – these fellows are typically postdocs with a scientific degree or MDs who have decided they want to explore industry rather than working with patients. They do a one-year rotation through different parts of the organization to learn about drug discovery and receive a drug discovery “bootcamp.” It allows them to see how their skills can be used in industry to impact patients.

The number one piece of feedback I receive from people on the programs is that they gain real skills and enjoy having the opportunity to practically apply what they have learned in school. They love our innovative and collaborative culture and patient-centric mission. They also value the access to our experts at Vertex – they can ask questions and build their networks. 

We often hear about a shortage of talent in the industry – but, at the same time, students are complaining about a lack of opportunities. What are your thoughts on this mismatch?

Certainly, many people are talking about this issue. Research shows that college enrollment is down 10 percent since 2019 – with most of that decrease in the male population. There is a smaller supply of college students within the US and competition is high in certain key biotech hubs, such as Boston.

If people are interested in how science can advance to benefit humankind, the pharma-biotech space can be very attractive. However, the competition for talent means that companies have to constantly push their differentiators. At Vertex, we push the message that we are working on transformative therapies for unmet needs – for people with very serious illnesses. We’re not looking to be a “me too” company that just iterates what others are doing. When people come here, they are able to work on the front lines of scientific innovation. I think this is really attractive for candidates.

So in light of all of this, why would a student have a hard time finding a job? There has been consolidation and swirl in in the biotech and pharma industries outside of Vertex. In addition, data shows that Gen Z is applying for a lot of positions – on average, 100 internship roles per person, which indicates that they tend to over-apply rather than targeting specific companies.

At Vertex, we don’t have a shortage of applications – it’s highly competitive and we pride ourselves on that. But I can appreciate that it is confusing for students given all of the dynamics in the industry.

What do you look for in applicants? Are practical skills important?

We are often talking with very bright students who do not have hands-on, practical experience – and that’s OK. We don’t expect students to have that experience. We do look for some prerequisites in terms of skills or degrees, but in general many skills can be taught in the roles.

In the majority of our programs, we are looking for eager, hungry students that have an interest in exploring biotech and the pharma world. We also like to see that students have thought carefully about their decision; for example, by researching the company and having some semblance as to what our mission is and why it speaks to them. We also like to see students who can work as part of a team. These students may not have direct experience in industry, but they can share their experience in collaboration gained from other areas, such as school assignments, volunteer work, clubs, sports, and so on. Creating transformative therapies is definitely a team sport!

We also look for learning agility and early indications of a “nothing is impossible” mindset. We want people who work with us to be open minded. One of my favorite things to ask students is, how did you find a way forward when the odds were stacked against you? We value personal leadership, grit and tenacity in problem-solving.

How challenging is talent retention?

Our flagship programs have a high conversion rate; in many cases, we offer students a full-time job upon graduation. However, there will always be some people who decide they don’t want to be in biotech or those who want to go back to graduate school (though sometimes this talent will return to us three or five years down the line). We take a lot of pride in giving students a positive experience so that we can create a pipeline of potential talent. We also track employee satisfaction through an annual survey, looking specifically at employees who came through our early and emerging programs. We look at their satisfaction with Vertex, the company culture, and their career development. 

Taking a human-centered design to talent and really understanding Gen Z talent is important. The majority of talent on the horizon falls into the Gen Z population, and a key currency for this generation is skills. Gen Z does not want to feel as if they have to leave to learn. They want to feel that they are relevant and constantly learning. We have taken a very deliberate approach with career development. For example, when early talent joins us upon graduation, they are immediately enrolled in our KICKSTART program, which focuses on skills development. They go through a cohort experience, building business acumen, data storytelling skills, and learning from external experts about different trends within the biotech space. It’s essentially a deep dive into critical skills to help set them up for success in the future.

We also track and support their development – and offer a competitive benefits package, such as student loan repayment.

How can pharma better “sell” the industry to new talent?

We need to get across the value proposition of just how cutting edge and innovative some biotech companies are. For example, gene therapies are a fascinating part of the industry and showcasing this can demonstrate to people how exciting the industry is and how it can affect the health of future generations. I also think the pharma industry needs to show that it can be a partner in helping people to navigate their careers. This all starts right at the beginning – with transparency in the application, interview, and offer acceptance stages, and then demonstrating how you will help people navigate the career they want.

What advice can you offer those individuals who are interested in programs at companies like Vertex?

When it comes to securing an internship, acting early has huge benefits; we often recruit in the fall for the following year. Don’t wait until the spring if you want to land a position that year! You must think ahead.

I would also advise using LinkedIn. LinkedIn is definitely number one when it comes to job searching. Build your profile, build your network, and then apply for jobs. LinkedIn also has powerful ways to show how you might be connected to people that work at certain companies, which gives you an opportunity to learn more to increase your chances. Research the company you are applying for and think about how your life experiences fit with their values and culture. You will be asked about this, so definitely prepare.

For students in our internship programs, we purposefully encourage them to build time in for networking, and not just within the teams they sit in. Look to other departments and look to people from diverse backgrounds so that you can understand other people’s journeys and career paths. I know that Gen Z finds this very rewarding.

Finally, my biggest piece of advice is, don’t come in and just do your job. Push yourself and put yourself out there. Ask for coffee with people. Reach out of your comfort zone – in time, it will become more comfortable. And it all helps you build a powerful network.

An Intern’s Perspective

Featuring Mahesh Jajoo, Social Media Co-Op July-December 2023 

During his co-op, Mahesh has become a critical component of Vertex’s social media team. We ask him about his experiences.

What is your background and how did you become interested in a career in pharma?

I’ve always been interested in human behavior and advertising, such as how humans react to stimuli, or how seeing something creates a desire in the human mind to buy something. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in business administration before working in an agency, where I gained experience in marketing, social media communications, and branding. I then opted to do a master’s in marketing at the University of Texas, Dallas.

I’ve also always wanted to feel like I’m contributing to the world and making a difference – and what better industry to do that than in pharma? I started looking for relevant roles in the industry, which is when I saw the opportunities available at Vertex.  

Is it difficult for students to find good internships?

Finding an internship is definitely tough – and it’s even tougher for international students, who may have additional issues, such as visas, to deal with. I think it’s important to understand that when applying for jobs it will be difficult for you to find your perfect company, and likewise it is difficult for companies to find their perfect candidate.

I started looking for internships in August 2022. I applied to Vertex and was interviewed for a spring co-op social media role. However, I don’t think I was prepared for the role! The role demanded a lot of project management and metrics. After the interview, I reached out to ask for feedback on how I had performed in the interview and how I could improve my resume and profile. They came back with some very thorough comments.

After that, I followed all of Vertex’s social media channels, and I researched the company and its competitors. I also upskilled myself with courses on social media metrics and project management work. Since I was following the company so closely, I was ready for when they advertised for a co-op role starting in the summer. I applied again, explaining how I had acted on the previous feedback and what new skills I had learned over the last six months.

I’m really glad they gave me another chance to prove myself – many companies do not.

What projects have you worked on during your co-op?

I have been managing the social media channels and working on metrics in the background. One of the goals for our corporate communications team is to increase engagement on social media. I’ve organized evergreen content (content that can be reused), created calendars for upcoming months where we have at least one post a day going out, and worked with scientists for a takeover of our social media handles where they showcase their day-to-day lives. I’ve also been doing social listening and reviewing what content generates the best engagement. 

What are your plans for the end of the internship?

I’d love to continue working in the pharma industry and I will be looking for opportunities in marketing or corporate communications at pharma companies! This has been a great experience. The role has involved a lot of interactions with different teams in Vertex. I’ve worked with the social media team, the video team, the pipeline team, and more! It’s been a really nice experience to work with so many different people on a daily basis. In fact, I’d say that this has been one of the best experiences of my life! I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to interact and grow in a short space of time.

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About the Author
Stephanie Vine

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent fourteen years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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