Pharmacy schools have Rx for job blues

Spinnaker

The enticement was hard to refuse: a signing bonus of $30,000. The wad of cash would help with student loans, so who could turn down the extra cash 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 said.

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 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 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. 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.

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 U.S. now has 106, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

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.

(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.