Open Minds, Open Doors: Pharmacy Career Paths Continue to Expand Well Beyond Traditional Roles

Mar 9, 2020 | Blog, Research Pharmacy, Residency Programs

March 2020 | Richard E. Malone, Pharm.D., MHA

What’s going on in the pharmacy job market these days? What happened to all the job openings? Have things really changed dramatically or is this just continuing evolution of the profession? How do I get a leg up? Will my career path in Pharmacy lead down an exciting and fulfilling road or will it hit a dead end?

Let’s take a look back. It’s 1988 and a young high school senior is sitting in front of a manual typewriter at his family’s dining room table. He is hoping to complete the lengthy application in front of him without having to use the unsightly correction tape roll that also rests on the table. The young man is preparing to head off to college to study “Pre-Pharmacy” with hopes of returning home in six years to work in the neighborhood pharmacy owned by his family. He has worked as a technician, delivery boy, repairman, and custodian in the store for over four years and has decided a career in pharmacy is his dream. While aware that pharmacists also staff hospital pharmacies and work for pharmaceutical companies, “Pharmacy” to him was standing behind the counter of that store, and he plans to stick with what he knows.

Fast forward over 31 years, and you will find that same kid sitting at a computer in his home office typing a blog. He is a pharmacist, but his role in business development at McCreadie Group, a technology company specializing in software solutions for pharmacy, certainly indicates divergence from his planned career path. As it turns out, he (I) took a job at a well-known children’s cancer hospital during my first year of pharmacy school and plans changed. Clinical pharmacy and hospitals became my new love and I had begun the journey down the path of my new career dream.

I had the opportunity to develop a critical care and cardiology practice in a large, progressive community tertiary care hospital immediately after completing my residency. I was one of a few pharmacists in the facility that held a Pharm.D. degree… even fewer had residency training. There tended to be a great divide between “clinical” and “staff” pharmacists back in the 1990’s, but I worked in both roles as I still enjoyed the distribution side of things and I needed the extra money that came from moonlighting in the central pharmacy. That one characteristic or behavior made me a little unique and opened doors to a career path in pharmacy that I could have never imagined… a career that has included stints as Director of Pharmacy at multiple facilities, Corporate Director of Pharmacy Operations, and Chief Executive Officer of a hospital.

I worked hard, my mind stayed open, and opportunities kept presenting themselves along the way. I shared a bit of my story as background for why I believe that open mindedness toward career options is more important for today’s pharmacists and pharmacy educators than ever before.

The Changing Pharmacist Job Market: Supply and Demand

The job market for pharmacists has changed dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently about 314,000 pharmacists in the US workforce with little or no increased demand expected in the next 10 years. Rapidly expanding numbers of colleges of pharmacy certainly helped resolve the pharmacist shortage.

A deeper dive into the statistics provides perspective on the dramatic increase in pharmacy graduates entering the workforce. Since 2004, the number of pharmacy schools has risen from 72 to 144 resulting in a doubling of graduates to approximately 15,000 each year. Some states have seen an even more staggering increase. For instance, the number of pharmacy schools in my home state of Tennessee has grown from one to six with the number of graduates increasing more than seven fold.

Other less obvious factors such as expanding roles of pharmacy technicians, growing use of mail order pharmacy, automation, and mergers within the retail pharmacy setting have contributed as well. The days of operating pharmacies with up to 30 percent pharmacist vacancy rates have been replaced by some employers receiving dozens of applications for coveted vacant positions. Many unsuspecting graduates and long-term pharmacists are asking, “What happened and what now?”

The Changing Pharmacist Job Market: Expanding Roles

A winning strategy in any highly competitive job market is development of a specialized and/or diversified skill set. Pharmacists are no strangers to this concept as many of them have sought specialized training through advanced degrees, residency, and fellowship programs for decades. However, many pharmacists with MBA degrees, residency, or other training now find themselves working in positions that may not fully utilize their skill sets. Some may even be unable to find employment depending on their personal geographical constraints.

Pharmacists, students, and pharmacy educators need to stay abreast of job market demands throughout the wide scope of pharmacy practice settings and adapt accordingly. The days of trying to prepare every student to become a critical care specialist with adjunct faculty responsibilities in an academic medical center are all but extinct. Some of today’s growing practice areas like information technology, specialty pharmacy, 340B program management, population health, and medication management in ambulatory settings will eventually be replaced by new opportunities. Being aware of and prepared for the “next big thing” is key.

Doors Will Open

I’m convinced that members of the Class of 2020 can have long, rewarding careers in pharmacy. Some will be lucky enough to land their dream jobs when their training is complete, while others might end up finding multiple new opportunities along the way. My career has taken the latter path and I have absolutely no regrets. I might even have another “dream job” waiting over the horizon before I’m done.

I will leave you with a few keys to the locks on career path doors…

  • Take ownership in your work.
  • Commit to life-long learning and stay up to date on emerging technologies, trends, and best practices.
  • Look at opportunities with an entrepreneurial eye.
  • Develop transferable skills that enable you to be agile with respect to professional roles.
  • Be willing to work outside your comfort zone, but know when to say “no”.
  • Know your weaknesses and be honest with yourself about them.
  • Know when to ask for help.
  • Develop relationships with vendors, business partners, coworkers, and managers. Never burn a bridge when your paths diverge.