August 27, 2009
Competition for pharmacists is high -- and so are the salary and incentives
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The enticement was hard to refuse: a signing bonus of $30,000. The wad of cash would help with student loans, and who could turn it down -- on top of a nearly $130,000 annual salary?
So, straight out of pharmacy school in Chapel Hill, N.C., R.J. Kulyk crossed the country for a job at a Walgreens in Redding, Calif. "It was a no-brainer," Kulyk recalled.
Pharmacists remain in short supply across the country, particularly in rural areas. Competition among retail outlets and health-care facilities is fierce, and the pay -- salaries typically start around $120,000 -- is high. To lure pharmacists, retailers are dangling incentives of all kind. For a while, one even put recruits behind the wheel of a BMW.
"You felt safe while in pharmacy school, that you could pretty much decide where you wanted to go," said Kulyk, 32. "You could live anywhere in the country."
Behind the shortage is an aging population in need of skilled advice and an increasing demand for pharmaceuticals that is only expected to accelerate in the years to come. Job growth -- and competition -- is also being driven by the expansion of retail giants such as Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS.
And though new pharmacy schools aimed at churning out more of the highly trained professionals have popped up across the country, demand still outstrips diplomas.
"The challenge is that the shortage will likely continue due to many factors. One factor is the aging populations of our communities," said Phillip Oppenheimer, dean of the Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "The elderly [population] uses a lot more medication per capita."
In Kaiser Permanente's Northern California region, 8 percent of its pharmacist jobs are vacant, said Frank Hurtarte, the director of recruitment services for Kaiser facilities from the Bay Area to the foothills. Kaiser has 154 pharmacies in the region and filled 24.6 million prescriptions last year.
To get noticed by potential employees, Kaiser Permanente advertises in journals, gives referral bonuses and offers signing bonuses of as much as $20,000, Hurtarte said.
Libby Olson received her pharmacy degree from the University of the Pacific in May and knows she is in demand.
"That's why I went into the profession," said Olson, who left a career as a training specialist in biotechnology to enter pharmacy school.
She sought a job in a hospital that would offer her closer interaction among patients, nurses and doctors. She started work at Sutter Memorial last spring.
"There were lots of companies offering incentives at the time; some of them offer large sign-on bonuses," mainly retail pharmacies, she said.
Sutter offered Olson several thousand dollars as a signing bonus, but she declined to say exactly how much. She negotiated her hours so she could work half time to spend more time with her two children.
"They did offer to be more flexible with me," she said.
While the struggling economy has caused drug sales to dip -- some people are delaying doctor visits or scrimping on medication -- experts say the long-term demand for pharmacists will continue.
New pharmacy schools have opened in response. The United States now has 106, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.
"There are a ton of new schools out there," said Katherine Knapp, dean of the pharmacy program at Touro University in Vallejo, Calif.
Just seven years ago, the U.S. pharmacy graduates numbered 29 for every million people. Last year, the number rose to 33 graduates per million, according to Knapp and others. Next spring, Touro is scheduled to grant degrees to 62 pharmacy students, its first class of graduates.
Enrollment at pharmacy schools has risen for seven straight years. In fall 2007, 3,956 full-time students were enrolled nationwide -- barely enough to fill the 3,904 jobs vacant in January 2007 at retail pharmacies, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
Admission is highly competitive, requiring a high score on the Pharmacy College Admission Test and courses that emphasize science and math.
To earn a doctor of pharmacy degree, students must undergo at least two years of undergraduate college course work followed by four academic years of professional study, according to the Web site of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.
"With a tremendous shortage of pharmacists, there are thousands of students trying to get in," said David Hawkins, dean of California Northstate College of Pharmacy in Rancho Cordova, which opened in August.
Relying mostly on word-of-mouth, visits to area colleges and traffic to its recruitment Web site, Northstate received 350 applications for its inaugural class of 89 students.
"When people graduate from pharmacy schools, they tend to want to stick around where they graduated," said Hawkins. "Hospitals in our area tell us they're delighted we're here. We're here to generate some employees for them."
Government agencies operating health facilities such as Sacramento County's Primary Care Center find competing for pharmacists difficult. The center fills 1,800 prescriptions a day.
The county has four vacant positions -- some have been open for at least a year -- and a dearth of applicants, said Steve Golka, the director of pharmacy for the county.
In the past six months, he's received just two applications for jobs with starting annual salaries of $112,000 -- about $8,000 to $20,000 below what's offered by some of the competition, he said.
"Pay is primarily our biggest hurdle," Golka said.
He added that some who choose public service are attracted by the steady hours and no weekend or holiday workdays.
This article was originally published in November 2008.
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