Compliance Specialists: Who They Are and What They Earn

Industry Advice Healthcare Regulatory Affairs Science & Mathematics

There’s a growing need for skilled compliance specialists in the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and medical device fields. As the regulatory landscape becomes increasingly complex in these industries, compliance professionals perform a critical role, helping companies to interpret and apply regulations to operate within the bounds of the law. Jennifer Scalise, a compliance expert and adjunct professor for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Regulatory Affairs program, explains what these specialists do, how much they earn, and how you can establish a competitive advantage to advance in a compliance career.

Responsibilities of a Compliance Specialist

Compliance specialists—frequently referred to as compliance officers—ensure organizations remain up-to-date on all regulatory and licensing requirements in accordance with company, state, and federal regulations. These specialists develop, implement, and enforce policies and procedures that keep a company’s products, processes, and physical sites operating in a legal and ethical manner.

If there are suspected violations of compliance, it’s up to these specialists to conduct audits or investigations, recommend areas for improvement, and develop roadmaps for remediation. In some cases, a third-party auditor may be required. Compliance officers are then the liaisons between the company and inspector to procure appropriate company documentation and review the scope of any proposed audits. Whether they develop their own remediation plan or receive a third-party recommendation, compliance specialists are responsible for taking corrective action to ensure and maintain future compliance.

Whether a compliance officer is called on to build a compliance program from the ground up or strengthen an existing strategy, Scalise says the work of these specialists is crucial to any effective business operation.

“Compliance departments are no longer simply a group of auditors who only conduct reactive investigations in the wake of compliance breaches or regulatory mandates,” she says. “Compliance departments now act as strategic, enterprise-level risk managers. When run effectively, these departments help businesses continuously monitor compliance and proactively identify and mitigate operational risks.”

On top of these many responsibilities, compliance professionals are often an organization’s “one-stop-shop” for employees who want to obtain appropriate regulatory documentation, receive training, or confidentially report compliance concerns.

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Where Compliance Specialists Work

Compliance professionals have great flexibility in where they choose to work. Some may choose to work directly for an organization’s regulatory department while others work as third-party consultants, assisting a variety of organizations.

Compliance specialists are most frequently employed in the following industries:

  • Pharmaceutical
  • Biotechnology
  • Medical device
  • Insurance
  • Finance and banking
  • Healthcare (including administration, health information, and technology)

Salary and Market Outlook

According to PayScale, the current national average for a mid-career compliance manager is $80,000. Salaries can vary, however, from $52,000 to more than $125,000, depending on an individual’s skill, years of experience, and job location.

Because compliance concerns extend to all industries, jobs for skilled compliance officers are abundant and the market outlook is promising. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be more than 23,000 new compliance jobs available by 2026.  As technology continues to advance and new regulations are implemented, demand for additional skilled workers will continue to rise.

How to Break into a Compliance Career

Scalise says successful compliance professionals come from a variety of educational backgrounds, including regulatory affairs, legal studies, accounting, and business. A bachelor’s degree is required for compliance specialists, although 14 percent of industry professionals also hold master’s degrees. She says that earning a degree is one of several keys to success in the industry. Here are her other tips:

Get Hands-on Experience

Successful industry professionals combine what Scalise calls a “compliance mindset” with both regulatory knowledge and hands-on experience. Top degree programs offer valuable hands-on training, such as faculty-supervised research projects and internships. Enrolling in a graduate or certificate program can be one way to fill in knowledge and experience gaps you may have in your background.

Hone Your Skills

Scalise says there are certain skills every compliance specialist needs to have:

  • Critical Reasoning: As a compliance specialist, you’ll be responsible for interpreting complex information and making decisions that can have a serious impact on a business. You must be able to think logically and analytically to problem-solve on a daily basis.
  • Emotional Intelligence: “Compliance specialists need to have people skills,” Scalise says. “You’re regularly dealing with stakeholders who are in crisis mode. You can’t have a ‘Chicken Little’ personality and scare people into thinking the sky is falling. It’s important to be even-keeled, possess self-awareness, and base decisions on your analysis of fact.” She says emotional intelligence is also highly useful when eliciting business requirements and driving consensus among stakeholders—a common responsibility in this role. 
  • Research: Regulations are complex and always changing. It’s important to have solid research skills to find reliable sources to uncover information and answer stakeholder questions quickly and accurately.
  • Prioritization: Compliance workers may deal with hundreds of competing compliance initiatives, from a small, pre-sale contract that needs reviewing to a compliance mandate that could cost a company $100,000 a month. After successfully determining business requirements and risks, a compliance professional needs to decide which problems to tackle first. They rely on strong time management and prioritization skills to make sound business decisions.

Speak Up

Scalise stresses the importance of being unafraid to speak up in compliance environments. “Failure to raise your hand or take a stance on sensitive issues can turn out to be very costly,” she says. The compliance profession requires communication with a variety of stakeholders, including high-level executives. As intimidating as it may be, she says, even if you don’t know the answer to a compliance question, just speak up and be honest.

“If you don’t know, you don’t know,” she says. “And that’s OK—it can be difficult to understand how to implement an obscurely worded policy in the real world. But know where to turn to get the answer. Don’t be afraid to call a government official and ask.”

She stresses that while it’s important to be confident in your knowledge and be able to articulate your reasoning, you also can’t be afraid to admit when you need assistance. Sometimes, she says, if you’re struggling to understand how to apply a compliance standard at your organization, even a simple Google search can do the trick.

“There is an abundance of information out there on the internet, so there’s no shortage of help available,” she says. “I suggest that [compliance professionals] regularly view webinars on compliance topics that they may be struggling with, particularly around complex regulations in the medical device industry.”

Stay Connected

Scalise says to remain competitive in the field, you must constantly seek out new information. She suggests exploring government and state websites for the latest compliance information in your area. Another way to stay connected to a network of compliance professionals is to join local or national organizations, such as the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) or the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE).

Be Selective

If Scalise could give one piece of advice to aspiring compliance professionals, she would “challenge them to be selective in where they choose to work.” She says it’s important to make sure a company supports compliance professionals before accepting an offer.

While she’s been fortunate not to have this occur in her own career, she’s seen executive teams that don’t fully support the existence of compliance officers. She advises that, if a company does not already have an effective compliance program in place, make sure they’re looking to hire compliance professionals because they actively want to establish a culture of compliance, and not just because they “have to.”

What’s Next for Compliance Professionals?

Trends in the compliance industry largely depend on government leadership, as laws and regulations are based on who is appointed to policy development. It’s important for all compliance professionals to stay current on changes in legislation and up-to-date on new industry certifications as they are developed.

Scalise says a big area of concern for compliance professionals going forward is the cybersecurity black market. Compliance professionals will work closely with information technology and security groups to reduce risks and manage threats to data privacy and security. New technologies and ransomware will present unique challenges to professionals tasked with keeping their organizations compliant and protected.

As new technologies like these continue to emerge, regulations will evolve, and the demand for compliance specialists will continue to grow. With this promising outlook, it’s an opportune time for professionals to break into the field. To get an in-depth look at the industry and career opportunities for compliance professionals, download the guide below.

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