What’s driving pharmacy layoffs and how to navigate what’s ahead

It’s not an easy time to be a pharmacist. Across the country, pharmacists are facing layoffs, reduced hours, and harsh work conditions. Are there too many pharmacists? Is a career as a community pharmacist still viable? How can pharmacists survive and thrive in a job market in flux?

Workforce trends

Caroline Gaither, PhD, FAPhA, professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, was principal investigator for Pharmacy Workforce Center’s 2014 National Pharmacist Workforce Study. She is currently in the process of conducting an updated analysis.

The 2014 study showed that while the unemployment rate for pharmacists was well below average, more pharmacists had experienced employer restructuring and reductions in hours than in previous study years. Respondents also said it had gotten more difficult to find new positions.

What accounts for the more-crowded job market? During the 2014 analysis, Gaither and her team found many pharmacists delayed retirement because their 401(k) plans took a hit during the 2008 recession. “There’s still this uneasy feeling around the entire economy and what’s going on in society, so I don’t think people are yet feeling confident enough to retire,” she said.

Gaither has given a lot of thought to whether a proliferation of pharmacy schools has contributed to workforce issues for pharmacists. “One of the reasons that the number of schools increased so rapidly was because the demand for the types of services pharmacists provide and the types of backgrounds that pharmacists have will be rising. That increased use of pharmacists in various roles didn’t happen as quickly as anticipated,” she said. “But there are signs on the horizon that there may be more opportunities for pharmacists. I do think that we’re still in a situation where we don’t know how many pharmacists we might need.” Still, she doesn’t rule out the possibility that programs could be forced to close.

Danger zones

“It’s important to recognize that a pharmacy is an expensive department for a discount store or grocery store to have. The goods that are sold in pharmacies—prescription drugs—are more expensive than other goods, and the personnel garner much higher wages than other workers,” said David Zgarrick, PhD, FAPhA, a professor at Northeastern University Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “There once was a time that a grocery store or discount store pharmacy was willing to sell prescriptions at a loss—for example, $4 generics—because it would be offset by people who do their shopping when they drop off a prescription.”

But the landscape has changed. The explosion of online retailers means that people aren’t doing as much of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, and the competition has driven down profit margins on nonpharmacy goods. “It’s much harder for these stores to make up those losses.”

Add in slashed reimbursements from PBMs and increased drug costs, and suddenly pharmacy looks like an undesirable venture. “This is why pharmacies in these settings are increasingly looking to providing immunizations and clinical services such as disease management and medication therapy management,” Zgarrick said.

But Zgarrick doesn’t believe the situation is as dire as it sounds. “I’m actually very positive about the future for pharmacists,” he said. He cites emerging opportunities in specialty pharmacy—where pharmacists manage the use of expensive medications—and unmet needs in clinical areas like oncology and infectious disease as other reasons to keep looking up. “As medications are used more, and particularly as they become more expensive, people are looking to pharmacists to ensure that they get the best outcomes at the lowest costs—in other words, the best value.”

Coping with job transitions

“I’ve gone through this experience once myself, being the recipient of the news after being the deliverer of the news for many years,” said Andrea Grant, senior vice president of business development at Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH), a global career transition and workforce development firm. LHH works with employers to provide coaching and other services to laid-off workers. “I tell people, ‘Don’t shy away from your emotions. You’re human.’ ” Many of her clients have gotten free or low-cost emotional support through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, churches, and community organizations.

When deciding where to go next professionally, Grant said, “It's all about your brand. A lot of people decide that they want to pursue the same exact type of job somewhere else. That’s fine. Some people take an opportunity to explore. Sometimes, that turns into different forms of entrepreneurship. Sometimes, it's active retirement. Who do you want to be in this next part of your professional life?”

Once you’ve determined your desired outcomes and goals, it’s time to look at strategies and tactics to get there. “One of the key components to that is transferrable skills. Pharmacists have a host of skills that transfer to other industries, like people management, time management, maybe a budget of some sort. Customer service. Some of them speak multiple languages. They’re able to communicate sensitive or confidential information that can be difficult to hear,” said Grant.

Pursuing professional certifications can help ensure your resume lands on the top of the pile. To stay nimble in case of job loss, keep track of your accomplishments. “Whether it's quarterly or monthly—get a notebook or put it on your tablet, whatever works for you—send notes to yourself to remind yourself of things that you have accomplished. They don’t always have to be numeric or quantitative. They can be qualitative types of things.”

Connections can be crucial. “One of the most critical things that we find at every level that people do not do well is network,” Grant said. And don’t stop once you’ve landed a new job—share job leads and other resources that could help peers who are also in transition. “We all are one ecosystem, and we really have to be our brother’s keeper if we want keep everything moving forward.”

For the full article, please visit www.pharmacytoday.org for the September 2019 issue of Pharmacy Today.