Pfizer has long been praised by HR experts and academics for its commitment to training and developing employees. But confronted with an increasingly challenging market, the New York-based pharmaceutical company is changing its approach. Even before January’s announcement that it was laying off 10,000 of its 100,000 employees worldwide, Pfizer had begun to shift its hiring and employee development strategy, says Chris Altizer, vice president of global leadership and talent development. In the past, “Pfizer was not focused on managing the external environment,” he says.
The company would plan for what kind of talent it believed it would need during the next 10 years and develop that talent from within. But that’s not an option for Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies anymore, experts say. Not only are such companies subject to the expiration of a popular drug’s patent, which opens the market to generic competition, but smaller biotechnology firms are able to produce new drugs more quickly, making it crucial for big pharmaceutical companies to have a continuous stream of promising drugs in the pipeline. Developing talent a certain way makes sense if your business is predictable and if a company knows what it will need 10 years out,” says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “But in this case, the pipeline of drugs that companies must develop is difficult to anticipate. ” To address this, Pfizer, whose drugs include Lipitor, is now focusing more on hiring and developing employees who can jump from one position to the next, Altizer says.
In recruiting, this means Pfizer, which used to hire candidates according to job descriptions, now evaluates what competencies the candidate demonstrates, he says. Previously, if Pfizer was looking to hire a country manager, “the interview would be, Tell me about your experience in your past jobs,’ ” Altizer says. “Now, I’m going to be more explicit about what I’m looking for. I want to know if they have the skills to manage a product launch. ” Similarly, Pfizer is focusing on developing employees based on competencies rather than grooming them for a specific role, he says. You can’t train someone who isn’t a chemist to be one,” Altizer says. “But you can take someone with project management skills and move them from manufacturing to research. ” This kind of competency-based training is necessary for Pfizer to get through the tough times it is confronted with and create a truly flexible workforce, says Bill Craib, vice president at the Human Capital Institute, an international professional association dedicated to strategic talent management. “They need a person who can switch from working on a heart disease product to one that helps people stop smoking,” he says.
Ultimately, however, Pfizer may need to alter its hiring strategy even more to hire talent as it needs it, Cappelli says. By having a “just in time” approach to talent, Pfizer can be flexible and respond immediately to market changes, he says. But Altizer says that’s not part of Pfizer’s plans right now. “We believe this approach to employee development will allow us to reach out to someone within our workforce at a specific time as we need it,” he says. If Pfizer finds itself in a position where it has to hire people from outside, then the company’s training program clearly isn’t doing its job, he says.