Workforce woes


“It’s the worst situation I’ve seen in 30 years,” says recruiter… But are pharmacists really leaving the profession in droves?

There’s an enormous undersupply of pharmacists willing to work rural and regional areas, according to pharmacy recruitment specialist and CEO of LocumCo Sue Muller, who is struggling to keep up.

“We are flat out with urgent jobs. They are leaving the profession in droves!” she tells AJP.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen it like this, ever.

“We just have an unbelievable number of requests for locums because nobody can find anybody themselves.

“Right now I’ve got 28 positions to fill and 10 of them start next Monday.”

Ms Muller says there are currently issues filling both locum and full-time roles.

“With full-time positions they’re not getting enough applicants so they’re having to hire locums to fill in.

“Victoria is particularly bad with the number of available pharmacists.”

While rural pharmacist positions have been notoriously difficult to fill, Ms Muller says what’s surprising is that she’s even struggling to fill full-time roles in metropolitan areas.

She’s currently advertising over the web, social media and by word of mouth for two full-time pharmacist roles in Sydney, and says there have been “hardly any” applications.

With all the talk lately about an oversupply of young pharmacists in Australia, it’s certainly confusing.

Ms Muller is not really sure how to explain it, but has a few thoughts.

“I don’t know what’s become of the pharmacist population. People might be comfortable where they are and might think that the pay is not as good as it’s promised to be.

“I know the numbers are down because people are disillusioned with the profession, or have moved into doing part-time work supplementing with HMRs.

“We don’t have pharmacy on the visa list anymore so we’re not getting those people from overseas,” she says, referring to the government’s April decision to scrap the 457 visa program; uptake of 457 visas was one potential means employers had to address shortages in rural and regional Australia.

(The Department of Immigration has since confirmed to AJP that the occupations of Hospital Pharmacist, Industrial Pharmacist, Retail Pharmacist  and Pharmacy Technician are currently all eligible to apply for a subclass 457 visa, and are listed on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List. However the 457 visa is set to be replaced by the new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa in March 2018, with eligible occupations not yet confirmed.)

Ms Muller also thinks some graduates have been put off entering the sector for various reasons.

“I think people are using pharmacy as an undergraduate degree to move into medicine or dentistry where they believe their prospects are better,” she suggests.

“They basically say they’ve had enough, they’re sick of the politics, the bad publicity, the hourly rate is so poor for someone who spends four years training and one as an intern.”

PSA President Dr Shane Jackson says that there is indeed a maldistribution of the pharmacist workforce across Australia.

“In rural and regional areas, we struggle. And I’ve had issues myself with my own rural pharmacies,” he tells AJP.

“It’s difficult to attract people to these areas, what we usually do is incentivise it by offering perks including higher remuneration.”

However Ms Muller’s difficulty filling the Sydney roles comes as a surprise.

“My understanding was that there was a reasonable balance in metropolitan areas. It probably comes down to what the job offers,” he says. “We need to delve deeper into that. Maybe pharmacists are comfortable in their environment.

“We honestly need some robust workforce data to understand what people are planning to do in the future. Gathering robust workforce data is high on the PSA’s priority list.”

However Dr Jackson doesn’t believe the situation across the board is dire, and points out that it is common among all professions for some people to leave or change careers.

“I don’t believe that people are leaving the profession in droves, but they are looking at other opportunities,” he tells AJP.

“That’s why PSA is looking towards rewarding, well-remunerating jobs for pharmacists.

“We don’t want people leaving the profession who really want to stay, but feel like they’re not supported or unable to do the things they have the skills and training to do – that would be terrible.

“But people do change their careers. And that’s not something that’s unique to pharmacy,” he says.

“We need to understand why they’re doing it; fortunately those that do have a pharmacy degree and can take that wherever they go. But people do change careers, it happens to every profession.”

NAPSA President Shefali Parekh says that pharmacy students are generally positive about entering the sector.

She agrees with Dr Jackson that there is always a percentage of graduates who decide to do something else, as with every profession.

“A lot can use pharmacy as a starting point for medicine, that’s a common pathway,” Ms Parekh tells AJP.

“Some others work a couple of years and then move into something else. Some do double degrees, for example they could study both pharmacy and commerce, but then choose to go into a more business-oriented role.”

A top concern among those who want to continue into pharmacy is remuneration, she says.

This is an area Dr Jackson announced the PSA would be tackling head-on.

“Better remuneration is a significant issue for our members, and we need to make sure they are adequately remunerated for their significant experience and training,” says Dr Jackson.

Ms Parekh also says students’ perception of pharmacy may also be impacted by negativity around the profession – from the profession itself.

“If people within the profession talk quite negatively about it [for example on social media], it can put off students who can think, ‘well if that’s what people who actually work in it are saying…'”

In a previous opinion piece published on AJP, Ms Muller asked: “Where are all the pharmacists?”

Here’s what you said:

“They’ve all just finally passed the GAMSAT ….” – Industry pharmacist

“We can keep our heads in the sand and pretend it’s the employees’ problem ,but I believe it is the bad working conditions and low pay that have driven a lot of pharmacists to do other jobs.” – Ahmed Zeidan

“So the answer is: Back at uni retraining, Time out having children, Working for Big Pharma, Working outside of community pharmacy eg Hospital. Happy in the city.” – Philip Smith

“The enticing pay is still unattractive – it’s the same it was a decade ago. Lower wages mean double income for couples so both have to be employable in the region moved to. The double income needed to even buy a home in a regional town means childcare is required. No family means no free childcare or even helping out if your school kids are sick. You can’t take the day off for sick kids as the pharmacy will close. It makes things burdensome.” – Amanda Cronin

“The bottom line is hiring pharmacists has become more difficult regardless of location. That’s based on my experience consulting with community pharmacy owners in city and rural locations in most states. Provincial pharmacies located outside the big cities offer very attractive hourly rates (often circa $50/hr) plus accommodation and some side benefits. Rural/remote pharmacies find it even more difficult.” – Bruce Annabel

You may also be interested in reading: The need for a pharmacy workforce strategy, by John Jackson.

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