Age Before Beauty, Revisited

By Derek Lowe

Megan's "Age Before Beauty" post is certainly true - older workers most definitely have a harder time landing a new job, particularly in a down economy. In my own industry (pharmaceuticals) I hear persistent stories of some of the large companies deliberately reworking the demographics of their work force in a way that brings this problem to mind.

The terminal degree for a scientist is a PhD. In most drug companies, that's the degree you'll need to have if you plan to have people reporting to you. A Master's degree, by contrast, will mean that much more time will elapse before you supervise others, if you ever do at all. Some companies are more willing to promote MS level people (eventually) to the same ranks as the PhDs (and thus have lab assistants report to them), while others have an impermeable ceiling that prevents this from ever happening. At any rate, years of experience will gradually raise the salaries of both groups, with the older Master's-degree scientists coming to earn a good deal more than entry-level hires with Doctorates.


And it's just these people, I'm told, that seem to have been affected by some recent rounds of drug company layoffs. The "old hands", particularly those without PhDs, appear to be getting culled disproportionately. "I guess they don't value experience", said one colleague of mine, after hearing from friends about what was happening. "Either that," I told him, "or they just feel that they're paying too much for it".

At least one large company looks to be bringing in new scientists at the same time it's letting older ones go, adding fuel to the talk about how they seem to have a target for their age and seniority ranges. If that's so, will all this have the desired effect? Well, it'll lower their salary and benefit costs, no doubt - at least until the next crop gets up to those levels. The effect on the research projects is harder to work out.

A certain level of experience is highly desirable in drug research. There are a lot of possible issues to deal with, and it takes a few projects before you've "had the tour" of the major ones. An drug research organization with no one in the labs save fresh-out-of-school types would make a lot of mistakes (and reinvent enough wheels to outfit a trucking fleet). So you need a few old hands around - but how many? The executives at the companies involved aren't stupid (we can but hope), so they must have figured that they'll keep enough of them (and by extension, that they had more of them than they needed).

And it's true that some of these folks (PhDs and MS alike) can evolve into crusty types who are mostly good for telling everyone else that the latest ideas aren't going to work. Tried 'em years ago, we did, and they didn't work then, y'know. Since most ideas don't work in drug research anyway, these people can have a pretty high batting average, although to no one's benefit. So you could probably stand to lose some of the people in this category, to be honest. But is there any way of telling which sorts were let go?

<i>Derek Lowe blogs from inside the drug labs at In the Pipeline</i> 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/04/age-before-beauty-revisited/13105/