Innovative job-classification tool ensures MUSC has the workforce it needs to run efficient clinical trials

February 01, 2021
The final piece of a puzzle of people  being put in place
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When the pandemic hit, clinical researchers jumped into action, starting up trials of COVID vaccines and treatments in record time. Without experienced and knowledgeable clinical research coordinators to run those trials, South Carolinians would not have had early access to these cutting-edge tools for fighting the virus.

Those research professionals were at the ready, thanks to an initiative begun a decade earlier by the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research (SCTR) Institute to improve the recruitment and retention of clinical research professionals.

"You'll hear that as a theme for any research coordinator. It's not something that you set out to pursue, but it's something that you find and then you become very passionate about.”

Clare Tyson

The initiative was spearheaded by Clare Tyson, research coordination and management manager for SCTR; Sarah Brewer, prospective reimbursement analysis manager for the Office of Clinical Research; and Jackie Carter, a talent acquisition manager for MUSC Human Resources (HR), who joined the team for the second phase of the project.  

Last November, Tyson, Brewer and Carter were among three teams selected by the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) as finalists for the 2020 Innovation in Workforce Development Award. Their selection as finalists recognized a decade of work creating and implementing the HR Matrix, a tool that helps to ensure successful recruitment and retention of clinical research professionals at MUSC.

In 2011, SCTR leaders and other research stakeholders met with MUSC HR to discuss poor recruitment and high staff turnover. They determined that the root causes were a lack of standardization in job titles for clinical research professionals and lack of a career development pathway. People who did the same job were often classified and paid differently. In the absence of a clear career ladder, clinical research coordinators moved frequently from department to department, seeking ways to advance their careers and find better pay.

“We were experiencing not just high turnover with people leaving the institution to seek other career opportunities but also job hopping within MUSC,” said Brewer.

 

MUSC team, one of three finalists for an innovation award from the ARCP, presents on the HR Matrix 
The MUSC team made a virtual presentation about the HR Matrix to the Association of Clinical Research Professionals as one of three finalists for its Innovation in Workforce Development Award.

At the heart of the dilemma was a failure to acknowledge clinical trial coordination as a full-fledged profession.

“When I started in clinical research, the culture was such that clinical research coordinators and assistants were transient,” said Tyson. “The position was seen as a stepping stone for those who wanted to seek and pursue medical degrees.”

Because the field had not yet been professionalized, applicants tended to find the career by accident.

“For many of us, this was a career path that we did not anticipate,” said Tyson. “We stumbled upon it, and I think you'll hear that as a theme for any research coordinator. It's not something that you set out to pursue, but it's something that you find and then you become very passionate about.”

In partnership with HR and in collaboration with other MUSC research stakeholders, Tyson and Brewer took the first steps to offering a more stable career pathway for those interested in coordinating clinical trials. They identified three primary titles for clinical research staff across the university as well as three subclassifications. For example, a program coordinator I could be hired at the novice, journey or advanced level, depending on the requirements of the position. Salary would be adjusted based on earned certifications, education level and professional experience.

“The [HR Matrix] tool has made it a lot easier for staff to come in here and have a career path and a livable wage. These are all things that make us a little bit more competitive so we can keep our talented coordinators.”

Sarah Brewer

In 2014, the first version of the HR Matrix was released, enabling managers to determine at what level they needed to hire for their needs. All they had to do was answer a series of questions about the competencies required for the job. Once a candidate was identified, the tool also provided an appropriate salary range based on his or her education and experience. As part of the rollout of this first phase of the initiative, existing clinical research professionals also received a 5% salary increase and more leave options.

The tool also made it easy for applicants to see which skills they would need to acquire to move to the next level within a given position.

“The Matrix is definitely a tool that is making sure that we are classifying folks in the right sort of positions for equity and salary purposes, but the Matrix also promotes and provides more transparency for career development and growth,” said Tyson.

In 2017, phase 2 of the Matrix was launched in response to a publication by the Joint Task Force establishing the first nationally recognized competency framework for clinical research professionals. SCTR opted to upgrade the Matrix as a REDCap tool that integrated the national competencies and reflected national salary data. The upgraded tool was rolled out for new hires in 2018 and, after an equity review in 2019, for all clinical research staff in early 2020.

“With phase 2, we were able to identify some market data, and we didn't just use the Charleston scope; we used national data,” said Carter. “That helped us to try and recruit from areas outside of Charleston to really help with that applicant pool.”

“The tool has made it a lot easier for staff to come in here and have a career path and a livable wage,” said Brewer. “These are all things that make us a little bit more competitive so we can keep our talented coordinators.”

"With phase 2, we (...) used national data. That helped us to try and recruit from areas outside of Charleston to really help with that applicant pool.”

Jackie Carter

It was also used in the equity review to compare salaries of new and existing employees to ensure that the latter also received nationally competitive salaries. As a result, salaries for existing employees were increased by an average of 7%.

“The fact that the organization is willing to put that much money into our research workforce really shows its commitment to clinical research,” said Carter.

That commitment has paid off. Last year alone, the rate of declined offers decreased by 12%, according to Carter. In 2019, 44% of all clinical research job postings were filled by internal coordinators, with 96% advancing through the subclassification tiers. These numbers suggest that clinical research professionals at MUSC are have embraced the career development pathway that the Matrix team established.

Next, the Matrix team wants to offer more training opportunities.

“We're looking at training opportunities and how to align them with the Matrix,” said Tyson. “We want people to have a more standardized way to obtain the skills they need to advance to the next level.”

Learn more about clinical research careers or search open positions  at MUSC.

About the Author

Kimberly McGhee

Keywords: Research