Editor’s note: Vanessa Gray, communications manager at the NC Chamber, contributed the following article following an event last week that brought together leaders among the CRO industry, which is facing worker shortages in the Triangle and in North Carolina. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The clinical research profession is amid a serious workforce shortage, and the problem is getting worse. North Carolina is considered the birthplace of contract research organizations and has a strong statewide presence, providing critical support to the state’s life sciences industry. However, they are in serious need of skilled talent to fill an urgent gap.

And while these companies offer a wide array of meaningful, high-paying jobs, they consistently report a general lack of student awareness of the industry’s presence and job opportunities.

Last week, the NC Chamber Foundation brought together top North Carolina CRO executives, education partners, and economic development leaders to focus on awareness of the CRO industry and solutions for how industry leaders and education can work together to reduce job entry barriers and increase diversity within the clinical research industry.

“It’s clear that North Carolina can be a leader on [industry] solutions,” said Meredith Archie, president of the NC Chamber Foundation in opening last week’s event.  “We are home to top notch research universities, a strong statewide community college system, and the most HBCUs in the country.”

What’s the math on the labor market for CROs?

There are only 1.6 applicants per job opening, according to Richard Staub, a senior advisor to the CEO of IQVIA.  But there are more than 50,000 industry job openings, Staub said.

“North Carolina is the birthplace of CROs, and we must elevate the profile of our industry,” he said. “We have to tell our story to attract applicants and strive to make progress on the diversity front.”

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Lack of awareness of clinical research as a profession

Clinical research is not well known as a career option, especially among younger people about to enter the workforce. While COVID-19 elevated science’s ability to solve large public health problems, CROs role in clinical trials remained unrecognized.

In their roundtable discussions, attendees emphasized the need to make clinical research part of the STEM conversation so it can be a career path on students’ and advisors’ radars. They also discussed the importance of educating students about the industry sooner—at the middle school and high school levels in partnerships with school systems.

One organization that is making significant strides to increase awareness of the industry is NCBiotech, which has an NC CRO Collaborative to better connect companies and education partners. Dr. Laura Rowley, vice president of life sciences economic development, described a robust online resource center that includes information on awareness, training, alignment, career options, and engagement opportunities for CROs to best showcase their opportunities.

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Replacing the two years’ experience entry requirement

Currently, CRO entry-level positions are not truly entry level and require two years of experience as a set industry standard.

Removing that barrier would open the talent pool for CROs and create opportunities for new college graduates. Susan Landis, executive director of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP), says moving away from the 2-year requirement to a valid and credible alternative will require industry alignment and supporting data. Solutions for consideration include counting CRO internship experience toward career experience and identifying transferable skills to properly assess graduates who are career-ready for entry CRO positions. Mentorship programs, developing a new competency framework, and apprenticeship work through ApprenticeshipNC are opportunities as well.

Another example of generating experience for new graduates are clinical research science certificate and degree programs such as those at NC Central University, UNC-Wilmington, and other college and universities, which were created to meet the increasing job market demand in clinical research.

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Recruiting a diverse workforce

The industry is working to grow workforce diversity, which builds trust with underrepresented populations that are critical to clinical trials. Landis shared recent data from Tufts Center for the Study on Drug Development that found a statistically significant correlation between staff diversity and clinical trial participant diversity. Geographical diversity is also a focus as areas further removed from our state’s research hubs have even less exposure to the career as a viable option. Overcoming these challenges is critical to the long-term health of clinical research and will require deeper engagement and collaboration with education partners across the state.

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