No big growth in 10 years for Big Pharma's workforce, but lots of restructuring

Top drugmakers have hired since 2007, but they've also laid off workers in the wake of major M&A deals.

Take a look at the Big Pharma workforce 10 years ago, and on the surface, it’s remarkably similar to the present. Collectively, the biggest companies in the field have added workers over the past 10 years, but only a few: Their 2016 payrolls amounted to 1.13 million, up from 1.06 million in 2007.

Underneath those numbers, though, are post-merger and patent-cliff layoffs, divestments here and acquisitions there. A couple multinational pharma companies that stood alone in 2007, with tens of thousands of employees, were absorbed into bigger ones—Schering-Plough, which merged with Merck & Co., and Wyeth, now Pfizer.

Others, such as Abbott and Bristol-Myers Squibb, hived off big chunks of their businesses. Pfizer, too, for that matter. Some managed organic employee growth: Novo Nordisk and Bayer’s HealthCare business, for two.

Starting with the megamergers: Roche, which bought the share of Genentech it didn’t already own, had 78,605 employees at the end of 2007. At the end of 2016, it had 94,052. In between? Cutbacks at its legacy Roche R&D operation, and a series of chunky pipeline-building deals, among other things.

Schering had a 55,000-strong workforce in 2007. Merck’s stood at 59,800. After a couple of revamps and cost-cutting rounds—not to mention the sale of its consumer health unit—Merck employed 68,000.

Likewise, Wyeth had 50,527 workers when its Pfizer buyout was announced. Pfizer employed 86,600. Today’s Pfizer—after a restructuring that included spinning off Zoetis, selling off Capsugel, buying Hospira and cutting billions in annual costs and thousands of jobs—employs 96,500. (Zoetis by itself now employs 9,000.)

Novartis snapped up Alcon and then executed a trade with GlaxoSmithKline. It cut jobs and moved others to emerging markets, ending up with net growth of about 20,000—118,393 in 2016, up from 98,200 in 2007. Sanofi bought Genzyme and went through its own rounds of cost-cutting for a workforce uptick of about 7,000, to 106,859 from 99,495.

Other hive offs? Abbott’s spinoff of AbbVie yielded a sum-of-the-parts workforce bigger than its original whole. As of the end of January 2017, AbbVie employed 33,000 people. In 2007, Abbott had 66,663, and 75,000 by 2016. 

Some companies actually shrank, such as Bristol-Myers, which spun off its nutrition unit Mead Johnson, sold its wound care operation Convatec in 2008, bailed out of a diabetes partnership with AstraZeneca, refocused its pipeline and generally remade itself in the years that followed. As a general pharma company, BMS employed 42,000 in 2007. Now leaning toward the biotech end of the spectrum, the company reported 25,000 employees at the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, Novo's workforce grew to 42,446 by the end of 2016, up from 26,000 in 2007. (The company announced 1,000 job cuts last year.) That company is famously M&A-averse, so it wasn’t big deals fueling that rise.

Eli Lilly hasn’t been an active buyer either; its workforce ticked up to 41,975 by 2016, from 40,600 in 2007. It had to shrink to grow, however; it announced 5,500 job cuts in 2009. 

As for growth by M&A, check out Mylan. Its workforce amounted to 17,500 in 2007. At the end of 2016? 35,000. The company is quick to point out, however, that it hasn’t just made big deals, such as its $7 billion buyout of Sweden’s Meda last year—It has grown organically, too. It has also made post-M&A cost-cutting a priority: It has already shuttered Meda’s U.S. headquarters, and it in December announced job cuts of “less than 10%” of its workforce.

On a broader basis, the life sciences workforce has grown more than Big Pharma itself has. In a jobs-growth study released last year, the Biotechnology Industry Organization found that, from 2012 to 2014, the bioscience industry had grown by 2.2%. Two of the industry's subsectors—research, testing and medical labs and drugs and pharmaceuticals—led that growth during the 2-year period with both increasing employment by more than 3%.