Are young pharmacists and students flocking to discount chains because other pharmacies simply aren’t willing to take them on?

Why do young people work for discount pharmacy chains if the wages are so low?

It’s a question often asked by AJP readers.

Based on the story of one student, it could be because other pharmacies aren’t willing to give inexperienced students a chance, or perhaps can’t afford to do so.

Meanwhile working for a big box discounter like Chemist Warehouse could prove to be an invaluable experience for a pharmacist-in-training.

Evie Armstrong Gordon, Secretary of the National Australian Pharmacy Students’ Association (NAPSA), shared her story at the Medici Capital Pharmacy Industry Dinner held in Sydney on Wednesday.

The industry dinner focused on the theme of wages and retaining young pharmacists.

Ms Gordon, who graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy (Hons, University Medal) from the University of Sydney and is currently an intern, featured in a panel discussion on the night.

She told delegates that during her job search as a pharmacy student, she was turned down “a lot”.

“It was actually about eight [times],” she said.

“I would go in, give them my CV and asked that if any jobs opened up to let me know.

“The most common reply was: ‘You don’t have much experience. We would prefer someone with more experience and as a pharmacy student you do cost a bit more too.’”

Ms Gordon says she was confused by the rejections.

“Why wouldn’t they want me? Students are a perfect blank canvas,” she said.

After being turned down several times, she finally received a job offer – from a Chemist Warehouse.

“I simply needed a job and they had one, and I learnt a lot from them.

“The Chemist Warehouse I started working at, they take on any student that applied.

“With all of my friends that worked in other Chemist Warehouses, that’s what happened as well,” she told AJP.

Chemist Warehouse provided Ms Gordon with both autonomy and mentorship, she said.

“I found that there were lots of opportunities to take on different roles in the group. Quite early on I was managing and directing people.

“They also provided product training and learning modules online.

“The pharmacist did spend quite a lot of time with students, making sure they were comfortable in the dispensary. It was very thorough.”

She acknowledges that while student pharmacists don’t have much business knowledge, “the way we use pharmacy students in our pharmacy should be changing.

“If you spend the time with them, bring them in, mentor them … you’re much more likely to see a return on that in the future.”

Panel members Charlie Benrimoj,  Espie Watt, Evangeline Armstrong Gordon and David Heffernan. Credit: Natalie Sirianni.

Panel members Charlie Benrimoj, Espie Watt, Evangeline Armstrong Gordon and David Heffernan. Credit: Natalie Sirianni.

Pharmacy owner Espie Watt, another speaker and panellist at the Medici Capital Pharmacy Industry Dinner, agreed that young pharmacists should be taken on.

“You’ve got to give young pharmacists the ability to grow, to take responsibility… Give the junior the job of doing the banking.

“I prefer to have younger graduates so I can influence their behaviour.”

However there is still an issue with low pay, with students highlighting pay/salary as the biggest issue in the workforce today, Ms Gordon pointed out.

Discounters are often criticised for paying its staff less than average.

For example, PPA remuneration surveys consistently report that discounters – including Chemist Warehouse – pay around $5 less per hour than other pharmacy groups.

But are young pharmacists really “flocking” to Chemist Warehouse despite the pay issue?

David Heffernan said geographical location means that young pharmacists go to Chemist Warehouse because “it’s there in their neighbourhood and they want to work nearby.”

And UTS ‎Head Graduate School of Health Professor Charlie Benrimoj said “they’re not flocking – they’re just looking for a job”.

He adds that pay is something that needs to be fixed across the industry, and that pharmacies that pay their pharmacist employees minimum wages “should be ashamed”.

“If you’re paying peanuts, you’re going to get monkeys.”