"The shortage of pharmacists in California’s retail and clinical environments numbers in the thousands," declares George Shea, director of pharmacy at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City. "The shortage is even more severe outside the major metropolitan areas such as Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"In areas such as Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia, the pay is higher, many [employers] include a signing bonus, plus the cost of living is much lower than the big cities."
The two main reasons for the shortage, Shea explains, are that "people live longer and the number of prescriptions has skyrocketed in the last several years. Because of the volume, we need more pharmacists than ever before."
Those who work with pharmacists are also in short supply. "There is an acute shortage of qualified pharmacy technicians in California," reports Jeff Akens, president of Western Career College.
Pharmacy technicians help licensed pharmacists provide medication and other healthcare products to patients. Technicians usually perform routine tasks to help prepare prescribed medication for patients, such as counting tablets and labeling bottles. Technicians refer any questions regarding prescriptions, drug information, or health matters to a pharmacist. Given the daily need for people to get prescriptions filled, many technicians work evenings, weekends and holidays.
The wage for entry-level tech positions varies by job setting, ranging from a low of $8 per hour to a high of $27.50. The average hourly rate last year was $13.96.
Akens cites America’s aging population and crowded cities as two of the forces driving demand for pharmacy techs. "Job opportunities are expected to be good, especially for those with certification or previous work experience."
Hieu Nguyen, Western Career College online coordinator and former pharmacy-technician program director, points to the tightening of requirements as another reason for the shortage of trained technicians. Merely having job experience no longer qualifies a person to receive a permit to work in the profession.
WCC’s 60-week pharmacy technician course is offered at all eight California campuses. It’s a hybrid course, which means that portions of the curriculum are available online. Tuition totals about $26,000.
"Graduates receive an associate of science degree," says Nguyen, "and the overall placement rate averages 83 percent."
Employment opportunities are plentiful in medical centers, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, private pharmacies, long-term care and pharmaceutical companies. Other employers include outpatient care providers, home infusion companies, pharmacies specializing in nuclear medicines, healthcare insurance offices, county health departments, and the California Department of Corrections.
Nguyen advises those interested in pharmacy technician careers to look at their personality first before deciding which path to take. "Each workplace setting is different; therefore, if you prefer a venue where there is patient contact, a retail setting is tailor-made for you," she counsels. "Conversely, if you prefer to work by yourself, then I would advise looking into a hospital-based, closed-door pharmacy.
"No matter which setting you choose, one fact remains – the boomers are getting older and need trained, caring, professional pharmacy technicians to meet their growing needs."
To try to keep pace with this rising tide of elderly drug dependence, the number of California schools offering pharmacist degrees recently increased from four to seven. Pharmacy programs are offered by the University of the Pacific (Stockton), Touro University (Vallejo), University of California (San Francisco and San Diego), University of Southern California (Los Angeles), Western University (Pomona), and Loma Linda University.
"It’s a different world now compared to my years in pharmacy school in the 1970s," says Shea. "The biggest changes are in technology and automation. A pharmacist in 2008 can get more exact information and be more productive in both physical work and providing drug information. In fact, the amount of knowledge has tripled over the last 30 years and the demand continues to increase."
The length of the pharmacy program has increased as well – from four to eight years. After earning a bachelor of science degree, pharmacy students spend three more years in the classroom before beginning a year of clinical rotations through a hospital and retail pharmacy. Some fourth-year students come to Sequoia Hospital and work with clinical pharmacists, make rounds with physicians, and monitor patients’ liver and kidney function. They also help nurses and physicians dispense prescriptions, watching for adverse reactions to medications or undesirable drug interactions. Once they complete the program, pharmacist graduates must pass national and state licensing exams before they can practice.
"The entry-level pay for pharmacists is between $110,000 and $120,000 a year," according to Shea. "Hospital salaries usually start at a lower level, but there is room for advancement into management, whereas retail positions tend to stay at the same level.
"The retail and clinical venues are quite different," he points out. "Eight percent of the state’s pharmacists work in retail settings," which are more focused on processing prescriptions for patients, so there is more direct contact with them. (Many Walgreen’s pharmacies fill over 800 prescriptions daily.) In a hospital, there is more interaction with other healthcare professionals.
As people grow older, they require more medications to stay healthy. Based on thirty-year projections of the senior population, and the drug industry’s heavy emphasis on marketing, the shortage of pharmacy specialists will continue for quite some time. So getting into the field now is a powerful prescription for long-term opportunity and career success.