The Future of Pharmacy Jobs -- Will It Be Feast or Famine?

Darrell Hulisz, PharmD; Daniel L. Brown, PharmD

Disclosures

April 15, 2014

In This Article

Editor's Note:
Chances are, if you ask most laypeople about the job outlook for pharmacists, they would say it is outstanding. For many years, pharmacy graduates have enjoyed near-full employment in the geographic areas of their choice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of pharmacists is projected to grow 14% from 2012 to 2022.[1] However, if you ask pharmacy students, recent graduates, and many practicing pharmacists, they are likely to express increasing concern about employment opportunities.

Daniel L. Brown, PharmD, Professor in the Lloyd L. Gregory School of Pharmacy and Director of Faculty Development at Palm Beach Atlantic University, is considered a national thought leader in the field of pharmacy workforce. Dr. Brown published a thought-proving article last year in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education[2] and addressed what he called a "looming joblessness crisis for new pharmacy graduates." Darrell Hulisz, PharmD, Associate Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and member of the Ask the Pharmacists panel for Medscape, spoke with Dr. Brown regarding this important topic, which should be of great interest to all pharmacy professionals.

New Pharmacy Schools: Why So Many Expanded Programs?

Dr. Hulisz: What were the most important factors that led to the rapid increase in the number of newer pharmacy schools?

Dr. Brown: The pharmacist job market in the 1990s and up to about 2007 was characterized by a significant shortfall of pharmacists, fueled largely by a marked increase of community pharmacy positions in chain stores, supermarkets, and mass merchandisers. This made jobs plentiful and caused salaries to rise above 6 figures, understandably making pharmacists a very hot commodity. The lure of a guaranteed job with a high salary attracted many people to pharmacy, and the growing number of applicants created opportunities for new schools of pharmacy to be established and for existing schools to expand.

It is not surprising that many academic institutions found starting a school of pharmacy to be a lucrative enterprise, and many existing schools saw opportunities to build new facilities or secure additional resources by expanding enrollment. Essentially, the financial incentives for academic growth have been considerable.

Dr. Hulisz: Why did the rapid expansion of new pharmacy schools seem to go largely unnoticed for so many years?

Dr. Brown: At first it was a good thing -- perhaps up to about 2010 -- and allowed the profession to meet legitimate manpower needs. And because pharmacy has a strong accrediting body, which does an excellent job of ensuring that high quality standards are met by all new and existing programs, there was no need for concern about academic expansion weakening the quality of pharmacy education.

However, the rate of growth turned out to be much greater than anyone could have anticipated 10 years ago. A profession that produced a fairly stable graduating cohort of 6000-8000 new pharmacists per year from 1974 to 2003 is suddenly poised to graduate over 14,000 this year. Such growth is totally unprecedented in pharmacy.

To some extent, the magnitude of growth snuck up on people, though the tightening job market has been increasingly apparent to graduates and recruiters of graduates going back to 2007 or 2008. It is ironic that academic growth tends to mask itself by creating many new faculty jobs for pharmacists. Roughly 50 new schools have created a couple thousand jobs for pharmacists as faculty members over the past 13 years. Some in our profession overlooked the growth because they were counting on an expansion of pharmacist patient-care roles to offset the increasing number of graduates, with the hope that they would be assimilated into an ever-expanding workforce as new responsibility for pharmacists generated new pharmacist positions.

I don't dispute such potential, but I also feel that academic growth has far exceeded the need, and a more reasonable growth rate would have better served the profession.

Dr. Hulisz: In your article, you noted that there were 80 colleges of pharmacy in 2000 and 127 accredited colleges by 2012. What is the current number of pharmacy schools, including those having candidate or precandidate status?

Dr. Brown: The figure of 127 accounted for accredited pharmacy programs within the 50 states. Only 1 new program was established in 2013: the University of North Texas. There could be as many as 3 more in 2014, bringing the total to 131. California Health Sciences University has been granted precandidate status by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). Two other schools in Southern California are hoping to receive precandidate status in time to open in the fall of 2014.

However, the number of programs is not an ideal measure of academic growth. The majority of academic growth in pharmacy since 2000 has been the result of the expansion of existing programs rather than the establishment of new schools.

Just looking at the number of accredited programs does not reflect the full picture. The total number of graduates is a more reliable measure of academic growth.

Dr. Hulisz: In your opinion, should some pharmacy schools consider decreasing student enrollment into the professional division?

Dr. Brown: No, not at this point. It might come to pass eventually through natural supply and demand market forces, but that probably won't happen until the next decade. For now, I would like to see new growth abate for at least a few years, as a result of individual institutions voluntarily choosing to refrain from either establishing new programs or expanding existing programs. Furthermore, I am not in favor of ACPE or any other agency being given the power to prevent a new program from opening or expanding, apart from a failure to meet accreditation standards.

My purpose in raising awareness of this issue is simply to encourage institutions that might be considering a start-up or expansion to factor in all the facts before making a decision. In addition to the financial feasibility of their plans, they should give thought to the magnitude of loans that students are likely to accrue while completing a PharmD program and the probability of graduates being able to secure suitable employment in the job market they are likely to encounter upon graduation.

Much attention is paid to the large number of applicants to pharmacy schools and to robust job projections for the future -- such as those in the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in January 2014, which are frequently used to justify new or expanded programs. However, the ever-increasing supply side of the equation seems to be generally ignored.

I would like to hear leaders within pharmacy organizations at least admit to the possibility that academia might have already grown sufficiently to meet the demands of the near future, and that continued growth might not be necessary at this time.

What is wrong with encouraging a full examination of all evidence before making a decision? Why not engage in open discussions about the possibility that the rate of academic growth since 2000 might have overshot the mark, and it needs to be curtailed for a while?

Such feedback might be helpful in dissuading institutions currently contemplating the start-up or expansion of a PharmD program that is not really necessary. I foresee a day when ACPE will require schools to report the employment rate of their graduating cohorts 6 or 12 months out from graduation, just as they report North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) pass rates today.

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