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Hiring the COVID-19 Vaccine Team: The Secrets Behind AstraZeneca’s Talent Hunt

When the world’s heading into a viral pandemic, how do you quickly identify, engage and hire an entirely new vaccine team, at a time when your competitors are doing exactly the same thing? 

That’s the challenge pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca faced at the end of 2019.

Yet by the time COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, the company was well on its way to hiring its first real vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution team.

In our recent webinar, we invited Klaudia Żywczyk, HR Product Owner at AstraZeneca, to tell us how the company transformed its approach to talent to meet one of the greatest hiring challenges of our time.

Here’s how they did it, and the key lessons they learned along the way.


The challenge of hiring during the pandemic

Even before COVID, the specialist pharma talent AstraZeneca was looking for was scarce. So when the pandemic began, demand for virologists, regulatory practitioners, and clinical trial and manufacturing professionals was unprecedented – AstraZeneca was competing against the whole world for the same niche talent as other pharmaceutical companies raced to work on a vaccine.

Added to this challenge was the fact that the world went remote almost overnight, and travel restrictions were quickly put in place. While the majority of AstraZeneca’s workforce started working from home – and all the recruitment went remote, too – teams working in the labs and testing centres needed to be on site to keep the existing supply chain working and to start developing the vaccine. So while AstraZeneca had access to a global pool of talent, many candidates were hesitant about, or unable to, relocate, making the talent squeeze even tighter.

And this on top of all the usual talent considerations: ‘We not only wanted to find the right talent,’ says Klaudia, ‘we also wanted to find the right fit for AstraZeneca.’


AstraZeneca’s strategy to win

AstraZeneca had a strong foundation to work from – a specialised talent acquisition team, a fully integrated talent tech stack and a proactive approach to hiring – but the crisis honed this into an effective, lasting strategy.

Implementing Beamery as a CRM in early 2020 ‘was one of those foundational pieces that really helped us move from a reactive recruiting approach to a more proactive one,’ says Klaudia.

The talent team already had a large database of previous candidates, but it was hard to search and surface talent – they wanted to make better use of it. So they integrated the data from their applicant tracking system into their CRM to rationalise the database. Now they could search through previous candidates and find the most promising ones, separating them into different talent pools based on skills, company needs, or job family. The CRM acted as the keystone for building specific talent pools and establishing an effective, more granular talent pipeline.

And this foundation of talent data made the other parts of the team’s action plan more effective.

It provided the basis for a series of targeted remote events to engage potential candidates and widen the talent funnel. Running a series of regulatory affairs webinars, and talks highlighting female IT talent in AstraZeneca allowed the talent team to build out these tricky talent pools, using the CRM to automatically push people who registered into specific pipelines and follow up by sending the attendees relevant content and open roles.

For the regulatory affairs webinars, for instance, 50,000 campaign impressions were quickly filtered down to 10 hires – an excellent result for such hard-to-find talent in the pharmaceuticals space.


By starting to widen and better define talent pools, AstraZeneca's team could also more accurately identify the candidates they wanted to target and create tailored, automated outreach campaigns to keep them engaged.

And this was all the more important for AstraZeneca, for two reasons. One of the findings from their CRM data was that most of their hires were not first-time candidates – they had applied before. So this sort of tailoring and automation was vital for keeping in touch with candidates through non-linear hiring journeys. The talent might not be right for you right now, but you need to be there when it is. In addition, because AstraZeneca’s candidates are usually scientists and technical specialists, the talent team needed to speak their language, only engaging them with content and messaging they would find valuable.


The data difference

What held these efforts together was data.

In parallel to building out the CRM, AstraZeneca’s talent team also employed new tools to streamline the remote hiring process, including a conversational AI tool to screen for eligibility and skills, and an on-demand video interview tool. ‘We had this big tech stack but, crucially, it meant we had meaningful data to pull from those systems,’ says Klaudia. ‘Data has been one of the key drivers for us through the pandemic.’

By making sure all the tools and systems they used were speaking to each other and feeding it into their talent data platform, the team was able to go beyond the standard time-to-interview and time-to-fill metrics and start looking at the candidate experience at a more granular level, map out the talent lifecycle and benchmark themselves against their competitors.

And by having this single source of truth, AstraZeneca could align efforts globally across the business. As they defined and built out their talent pools, they set business-wide rules to ensure that these pools were consistent across the company – for example, no duplicates under different names or overlaps – which gave their recruiters more autonomy in connecting promising candidates with the right roles.


Hiring in the time of COVID, and beyond

The outcome? AstraZeneca filled over 1,000 roles over the course of the pandemic, and scaled up to a manufacturing capacity of three billion doses of the vaccine to ensure fair worldwide distribution.

And it’s had a lasting impact. In the first seven months of this year, the talent team made 1,500 more hires compared to its baseline, showing that their approach to talent was more than just a tactical response to a crisis – it’s a long-term strategy.

This is just the start for AstraZeneca. Seeing the success of this proactive, data-driven approach to talent, the team’s now looking to further explore skills-based hiring, with plans to improve internal talent mobility and build a company-wide skills database to manage their talent through its whole lifecycle.