Education vis-a-vis experience

Education vis-a-vis experience

For ages, the ‘book-smart’ or ‘street-smart’ debate has dominated the HR chambers across industries. Aashruti Kak finds out which one does the pharmaceutical industry need

Imagine there are top two candidates for an open position in a pharmaceutical company—one is a skilled worker with years of experience, and the other is a degree holder with less or no experience. Who will you pick? What would consider heavier—education or experience? “It’s difficult to say which one is more important. But depending on the kind of job and the level, one can be more important than the other. You cannot rule out either of them,” says Alind Sharma, Senior Vice President, HR, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals. “For example, if I am looking for a junior level worker in my research laboratory, there, obviously I need the education—an MPharm or a Phd. Not much of experience will be required because there will be a group leader who will tell him how to run the experiment, what to do, etc. The moment I take it to a principal scientist, to head two or three labs, here, while education is important, experience is equally important, simply because sometimes by just a look of it one can assess if an experiment is not going right,” he says.

The balance may tip either ways; one may give more emphasis on education in a R&D setup as opposed to a marketing setup, and the other may give more weightage to experience in a manufacturing setup, especially in formulation manufacturing. But on a balancing scale, both would share equal importance.

Typically, in the pharma industry, it is the experience that gets more consideration, because all the classroom time, study time and lab time in the world cannot replace real time, real experience in the workplace. Most of the senior people in pharma companies are those who have grown from within their respective companies. However, the trend is gradually moving more towards companies hiring freshers with the required qualification, mostly because there is a dearth of experienced candidates in the industry. It is important to note that education does not necessary equal to intelligence, and paper degrees will never equal job skills.

Changing HR practices

“Traditionally, the pharma industry has never been a very outward looking industry. I jokingly refer to the industry as the Parsis because they tend to marry within the family, ie keep their skill sets within the company. Given that there has never been a fillip to look outside and do things differently, I would say in the last five to six years there is a lot of change happening in how the HR professionals look at the pharma industry,” says Sharma. He says that a lot has to do with the fact that many non-pharma candidates have moved into the industry in the last few years. Some of the large companies have management training and summer training programmes which has brought in the influx of the educated from B schools. That, alongwith cross pollination from other industries has ensured that things look slightly different.

“People have started looking at manufacturing and the more traditional marketing approaches. Pharma, HR and IT-these are areas where you have always had cross pollination from other industries, but now you can see a lot of people from outside in areas like intellectual property or manufacturing and even marketing for that matter. There are some companies like the Piramal Group who have been fairly practicing hiring non pharma people,” he adds. So, there has been a crossing over in the education of pharma professionals, which has brought about a different way of looking at same problems that companies may face on a day to day basis.

However, according to a spokesperson of a leading pharmaceutical company, there has not been any significant change in HR practices in the pharma industry. “We still look at education, experience, duration at a job, number of companies worked with, breadth of experience, etc,” he says.

There has also been a transformation in terms of the way companies are willing to try and experiment more. Sharma says, “Outsourcing used to be a dirty word not so long ago, but today you can clearly see its acceptance. People are trying to use IT as much as possible—IT-based training, reporting and so on are pretty much a norm, at least among the larger companies, which a decade ago did not exist. The reach of Internet has allowed good communications within the pharma industry to move beyond just communications into even information share. There is a lot of research that is being done collaboratively at different locations, both inter and intra company through portals and so on.”

Pick and choose

A good college education can really take you far in life. At the same time, it will not help candidates professionally who are book-smart but otherwise clueless while dealing with real work. What is the use of knowledge when you are not able to act on it and put it to work?

Similarly, being street-smart and not being able to handle anything other than what one is accustomed to cannot be considered as an advantage. It all depends on the specific job requirements, the field and a company’s culture. “There are certain areas where I care two hoots if the guy is an MBA or not as long as he is able to deliver. But let’s say, in the manufacturing field, a lot of people have to undergo a materials management course, but even if they don’t, no one cares. As long as they have a level of integrity they can understand,” says Sharma. But within purchase, he says, there are sourcing and procurement as two parts. Sourcing education is important because one needs to understand the technicalities of what is it that one is looking at, whereas procurement education is not that important. “You can actually drill down to a specific area like purchase. It is difficult to say that we can compromise education or experience. In certain cases, yes, maybe you can, everything else remaining the same, given a choice I would not compromise on education, its important,” says Sharma.

A spokesperson of a leading pharmaceutical company says, “Ideally, we would prefer a blend of education and experience in a candidate. For marketing jobs, we would be more open to looking at experience, whereas, for R&D jobs we are likely to give relatively higher weightage to certification and degree at the starting point, but even then the experience gained would be important as the person progresses—in the kind of chemistry worked on, familiarity with different dosage forms, or expertise in certain areas like injectable development.” So, evidently, a person with education but no hands on experience would still need to gain that experience through working and training.

‘Cost’ and effect

Companies are always willing to train freshers (considering that there is a lack of experienced workers anyway) or even the newly hired experienced lot (pertaining to the company’s requirements), never mind if it adds to the costs of the company. Sharma says, “The point is you need a good mix of both. The classic example of this is management training programmes. The individuals who typically come with education, and not necessarily experience (maximum maybe one or two years), cost a lot, and hopefully, with the economy meltdown, those costs will come down. But you need to bring in these people because, firstly, they bring in new methods to manage, they bring the logic, and if nothing else then they bring in a fresh way to look at problems. At the same time you cannot ditch the experienced candidates just because you want to hire a bunch of MBAs. So, as an organisation you need to balance the two.”

He continues, “We have certified programmes for our employees. These may not be certified formally—not more than three percent of such programmes are formally certified. But we would definitely ensure that people get trained in technical and soft skills at least.” Other companies, in the absence of formal training, may regularly send their employees for conferences and international training programmes and may encourage scientists at their respective R&D centres to work towards a PhD at universities under the guidance of external faculty or internal mentors.

Interestingly, the needs and requirements of a particular company may also depend on where the organisation is in its life cycle. “For example a company like Glenmark, which is growing at a phenomenal pace, will need a lot of frontrunners. So, it may push for more of a younger lot, whereas a company that is trying to consolidate would not necessarily want to go for younger, more educated people, it might be happy with experienced people. So it varies at what you are, who you are and what area are you looking at,” says Sharma.

Who stays longer?

There is a very visible correlation between salary and experience—the more one knows, the more one earns. However, as per latest trends, most young people who enter the industry carry a diploma or a degree, which not only makes it easier for them to land a job, it also gives them the power to negotiate higher salaries, with or without any experience. “Except R&D, in most fields the younger lot moves out faster. Their lifecycle in a company is less—two or two and a half years on an average. R&D is a different ball game altogether, where everybody is an educated. If you are talking about a typical MBA, I would be happy if they would stick with the company for more than three years. Obviously, the ones with lesser qualifications and more experience tend to stick around longer,” says Sharma.

According to a spokesperson of a leading pharmaceutical company, it all depends on what kind of future employees envisage for themselves within a company. Both qualified and experienced employees will stay if they see that they have good opportunities for learning, growth and career advancement within a company.

While education is definitely important, unfortunately, many times some people believe that having a piece of paper proving their qualification/s somehow automatically puts them in the same league as people with real world experience, and that they are already successful at what they do. Even though both education and experience can eventually take you places, industry experience is one such factor that is most likely to tip the scales in a candidate’s favour.