Reprinted from Technology Transfer TacticsTM
Like employers all over the country, tech transfer programs are struggling with staffing shortages caused by what some have called the Great Resignation, the recent trend in which people are leaving their jobs in search of better lifestyles and more money, with employers finding it difficult to replace them.
TTOs are being forced to find new strategies for recruiting new staff and hanging on to current employees, including more flexibility for remote work and innovative ways to provide higher salaries.
Most TTOs are struggling with this issue and potential solutions are only just now emerging, says Glen Gardner, a recruiter with Gardner Innovation Search Partners in Columbus, OH, whose firm focuses on filling key roles in tech transfer offices.
“In my 24 years in the recruiting business, I’ve never seen the hiring process this hard before,” he says. “I’ve never seen it so tricky as it is now.”
The two biggest challenges now for TTOs regarding staffing are competitive salaries and satisfying employee desires for remote work, Gardner says. Those problems grew during the pandemic, when tech transfer was one of the few sectors to perform way above expectations.
University leaders have been pleased with tech transfer performance during the period, but one offshoot was that employees got used to working remotely.
“Now no one wants to go back into the office,” Gardner says. “University leadership has been happy with what tech transfer offices have done in the past two years, but they’re saying we need these folks to come back to all these office buildings so they can provide services to our faculty.”
University leadership accepted during the pandemic that some of the usual interactions with faculty would be curtailed, and the success of other aspects of tech transfer made that acceptable to them for a while. But now there is a renewed focus on the personal interaction with faculty that leads to more IP disclosures and other benefits, he says.
“Walking the halls at your medical center and running into one of your principal investigators, asking what he’s been up to lately, that’s how you get a lot of new invention disclosures. You have to build relationships with faculty,” Gardner says. “That’s what remote work limits.”
Higher salary expectations
Potential employees also are demanding higher salaries for tech transfer positions, and many universities are not yet able to satisfy them, Gardner says. He recently was asked to recruit five tech transfer positions at a major research institution, but Gardner says he declined because the offered salaries were so far below what any suitable recruit would accept now.
In two searches he is currently conducting, Gardner’s firm originally turned them down because the salaries were too low. The institutions adjusted the salary higher, but many can’t make that adjustment, even when they know they are not offering market value, he says.
Additionally, Gardner points out that there are relatively few tech transfer professionals in the entire world, maybe 5,000 worldwide. TTOs are all essentially competing for the same candidates — not to mention the industry roles many tech transfer professionals are opting for, with their often higher pay scales.
These candidates, he adds, typically have PhDs, MBAs, or JDs with five or more years of licensing experience, “and they want to pay that person $100,000 in Southern California or Boston,” he says. “I’ve found that the salaries in these high cost-of-living places are not competitive. The same salary that might work in Iowa or Ohio is the same thing they’re offering in Silicon Valley,” and that math just doesn’t work.
Pay equity within the team is another big problem, Gardner says. He has warned leaders at major institutions that their tech transfer professionals are going to be plucked by other institutions because they are not making market value.
The tech transfer community has collectively lost track of what its professionals should be making, Gardner says, so he is urging AUTM to conduct a salary survey that could provide benchmarks. The last AUTM salary survey was in 2017, and Gardner says the landscape has changed a great deal since then.
Without improved salaries and better equity within a TTO team, employees can easily be lured to other institutions or a different employment opportunity, he says.
“People can go to industry, venture capital, or private equity and double their salaries. I know a lot of people doing that,” Gardner says. “So a program that is already struggling to fill open positions can also see existing people leave because they know they are not being paid what they are worth.”
Some allowing more remote
Some TTOs are responding to the staffing challenges by allowing more remote work, finding ways to satisfy the need for on-campus faculty relationships through hybrid arrangements of mostly remote work but some time in person activity, Gardner notes. Any position that requires 100% on-site work will always be the most difficult opening to fill now, Gardner says, even though it wasn’t long ago that such expectations were the norm.
Trying to increase salaries is proving more difficult for universities than at-home flexibility, he says. Gardner advises tech transfer leaders to broaden the scope of applicants they will consider for positions.
“Bring in industry people, post-docs, and don’t worry so much about PhD, JD, MBA, and all these letters behind their names,” he says. “Be more focused on the transferable skills someone can bring into your office and not just the narrow definition of a suitable candidate that you might have used in the past.”
Filling positions at MIT
The Technology Licensing Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has experienced substantial turnover in the past two years, among both licensing and support staff, says Jodie Richardson, assistant director of operations. Filling the licensing positions has been far more difficult than the support staff, she says.
The open positions affect all the remaining employees who have to pick up the slack and also participate in the recruiting and hiring process, Richardson says. That can increase the risk of burnout and lead to more resignations, so it can become an unfortunate cycle, she says.
“We do exit interviews, and the biggest reason by far that we hear for why people leave is salary,” Richardson says. “Salaries for tech transfer offices in general probably need to be reevaluated. We are currently trying to work with our central compensation office to help them better understand what we do.”
The function of tech transfer professionals is sharply different than for most academic professionals, more like a business operation than what happens in other university roles, so Richardson and other TLO leaders are trying to educate university administration about how that affects the market value for their compensation, she says.
“If we can have those roles reevaluated, leveled, and graded appropriate for what we do in tech transfer, rather than trying to lump them in with positions at all the other units, that would be a huge step forward to making us more competitive with our salary offers,” Richadson says.
Limited-term positions can help
The MIT TLO also could benefit from a larger headcount as the licensing volume increases, she adds. To work toward that goal, Richardson and her team have turned to term-limited licensing positions because it is easier to get approval for those than for a new, permanent full-time employee position.
The office currently has two-year term positions for entry-level licensing associates and also for the higher-level technology licensing role, Richardson explains. The term-limited positions also are used for specific roles that might not need to be permanent, such as software development.
Originally one-year terms, the limited positions were expanded to two years after positive experience with the roles. The limited positions provide immediate relief for needed functions, but those employees can also be transferred to fill full-time positions when they become available. In that way, the program can backfill an open permanent position quickly with someone who is already familiar with the MIT program, Richardson explains.
MIT had been using the limited term positions for about a year before the pandemic, but Richardson says even those roles are harder to fill now because of the increased desire for remote work.
“We’re going to have to be more flexible with those positions and allow more remote work. Unless people are already in the Boston area, they’re not going to want to relocate for two years,” she says. “We’re looking at allowing those limited term positions to be fully remote in order to get a larger talent pool.”
The MIT program also utilizes contract employees instead of full-time for help in marketing, IP assistance, and other roles, she says.
In addition, MIT has been developing more clear career paths from entry level positions to more senior levels, creating more opportunity for job growth in the hopes of holding on to existing talent.
“Tech transfer has always been a cyclical career, with people coming in for two to four years and then moving on to something else. I don’t think we’ll ever completely get away from that,” Richardson says. “But if we put in place things that allow people to come in at the beginning of their careers and work through a progression to senior positions, I think that will be very beneficial in holding on to the great talent that comes through our office.”
Hiring from within
WiSys, the technology transfer office for the University of Wisconsin System Comprehensive Campuses, also has seen turnover in the past year or two, with some positions left open for longer periods than normal, says President Arjun Sanga. Searches have been very competitive, with some finalists informing WiSys that they had other opportunities and going to other employers.
Partly in response to the recruiting challenges, WiSys has made more of an effort to promote from within to a manager level. That has brought several benefits, Sanga says, including providing development opportunities for the current team and the ability to bring in new talent to entry level positions.
“That also allows us to benefit from the institutional knowledge that these current employees bring to their new positions, and to reward and recognize them for their past efforts,” he says.
In the recruiting process, WiSys has found that moving quickly is important. With recruits having so many opportunities, a good candidate can be lost to a competitor if the TTO hesitates, he says.
Flexible start dates also help, Sanga adds. Candidates may be finishing a PhD or graduate program, for example, so it can be advantageous to allow a start date that suits their needs when perhaps another employer might not be as flexible.
“Certainly, it is more competitive than it was five years ago,” Sanga says. “It’s salary, working conditions, signing bonuses, all of it. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell why someone accepted another offer, but we are focused on incentives, the culture, and making sure it’s a good fit.”
Culture a selling point
Sanga also has found that candidates respond well to hearing that WiSys is a nonprofit, mission-driven organization. It helps align expectations about the appropriate salary range, he says. Candidates new to the field also may respond well to hearing about the benefits of working with an academic institution or nonprofit, such as competitive time off, good health insurance, robust retirement options, autonomy in the position, and an overall better work-life balance, Sanga says.
Like other programs, WiSys is finding that more candidates want to work remotely at least part of the time. Sanga tries to be flexible and allow that as much as possible, but it can be difficult.
“We serve 11 universities, and for some of our positions, as the pandemic eases up we expect those positions to visit those campuses regularly,” he comments. “It’s an in-person, relationship-building business so it’s a little more challenging to do that through Zoom. However, there is a lot one can accomplish through videoconferencing, and we have to accept that we will continue doing more of that kind of arrangement than before the pandemic.”
Active search required
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in Madison is seeing employees tempted by other opportunities, including one employee who recently left to run a venture fund, says Greg Keenan, senior director of WARF Ventures and head of its accelerator program. Employers in industry are realizing that tech transfer professionals have valuable experience and skills, Keenan says.
A big lesson recently is that the program can’t just post a job opening and wait for applicants, he reports.
“The more passive postings haven’t been getting as much candidate flow as they might have in the past. We’ve had to be more intentional about going out and recruiting people through our networks, working LinkedIn, finding candidates that we think might be a fit and reaching out,” Keenan says. “It’s been a lot more effort, and we’ve used recruiters more, even for junior positions.”
Even when a good candidate is interested, it is not uncommon for the current employer to offer a promotion or salary increase that keeps them on board, Keenan notes.
As with other TTOs, salary growth has been a challenge. WARF is careful to use position titles that are not so narrow as to drive away some candidates, and it emphasizes how the organization is mission-driven and offers a better work-life balance than some other options. The opportunity to participate in the university community also can be appealing, he notes.
Keenan tries to look on the bright side. “Having the opportunity to bring in new talent is always a positive,” he says. “It might be frustrating and take a bit more time to fill a role, but I think the opportunities that are available in a market like this far outweigh the challenges.”
Flexibility empowers employees
The Center for Technology Licensing at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, is receiving fewer applicants for posted positions, says Alice Li, CTL’s executive director. She participated in a program at last month’s AUTM meeting in which she and others discussed their staffing challenges.
“We are hearing similar things from many other programs. We are all competing for the same talent pool,” Li says. “I have not heard that people are resigning because they just don’t want to work anymore, but tech transfer programs have always seen a certain amount of turnover. I think overall the economy and the size of the talent pool means it is acutely felt when we compete.”
The challenges can be different depending on what type of professional the program is seeking, Li says. Candidates in the early stages of the profession tend to be more focused on obtaining experience and having growth potential, she says, whereas later stage professionals are more focused on salary, culture, and the flexibility to work remotely.
Cornell is responding to the increased demand for remote work by allowing some tech transfer professionals to work a hybrid schedule that requires them to come to the campus periodically. Some even work out of state, including some top performers and some in leadership roles.
It is not right for every role, however. Some development positions require more interaction with inventors on site, so those roles are not performed remotely, she says.
“But for positions that are more patent support, communications, and similar roles we have allowed those positions to move out of town. In terms of talent retention, that has played a very important role,” Li says. “That flexibility and empowerment of the work force is important right now.”
Li heard different opinions from AUTM participants on whether these new staffing dynamics will be only a temporary response to current challenges or represent an evolution that will become permanent. She agrees with those that think the hybrid working arrangements are here to stay.
“I see a spectrum of approaches on this, with people trying different variations of this hybrid approach,” Li says. “I’m very open minded to experimenting with approaches to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Contact Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org; Richardson at email@example.com; Sanga at firstname.lastname@example.org; Keenan at email@example.com; and Li at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from Technology Transfer Tactics, Vol. 16, No. 3 March 2022, Published by 2Market Information, Inc. Copyright 2022. For subscription information, visit www.TechTransferCentral.com