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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  1. Andrew

    Sue, is it still lazy millennials or is it the shit pay, conditions, workload, advancement prospects, compliance burden, and job fulfillment?

    When the “opportunities” start at $60/hour maybe you’ll start having some luck.

  2. Bruce ANNABEL

    At $60/hour plus 20% on-costs in return for a dispensing pharmacist results in the business struggling. I’ve seen it. The answer is employers and employees agreeing on more productive roles.

    • GlassCeiling

      Which 100 person single pharmacy town in remote Australia are you referring to Bruce?
      By struggle do you mean the owner had to take a cut in profit to make only double the employee wage?
      Run under management ?
      How many accountants work for 25 dollars an hour?

  3. SocksFullOfTears

    In my group of 20 or so Pharmacy friends, all but 2 have stopped working full-time. Some are studying full-time again while others are working weekdays in a variety of roles like: Pharmaceutical repping, Veterinary nursing, Laser hair removalist, Radiology assistants, and Finance. We do some weekend shifts or a shift here or there just to stay registered.
    And we’re all pretty recent graduates as well (6-7 years since we graduated).
    The truth is, we all heard about the appalling conditions while we were studying, so we kept an eye out for other opportunities as well. Most of us got a pretty good picture of the pharmacy profession within 2-3 years out.
    TBH, these other roles are far less stressful, pay much better and actually allow you to have a work-life balance. As a young pharmacist, you have to work every weekend, a lot of night-shifts or go out rural. Pays are in the low 30s and there is no pay rises or bonuses to speak of.
    Plus, the allure of pharmacy ownership has rapidly faded making the only financially rewarding career progression obsolete.

    • Red Pill

      Don’t forget, weekend penalty rates are also fading away! It’s all peachy fellas.

      • Socks Full Of Tears

        That was the nail in the coffin for many of us only working weekends.
        Pharmacy is nothing but pain and agony. And it’s coming from a young graduate. I don’t know how some people have worked in these conditions 10+ years. It’s sad really. Specially when you find a real job and realise how much you were being abused and overworked on a daily basis.

    • GlassCeiling

      Sockfull what are radiography assistants ?

      • Socks Full Of Tears

        I think the correct name for it is a Radiographer, or Medical imaging technologist. I know my friend had to study for a while to get the licence.
        She earns about 85k and she just started about a year ago.
        Here’s more info if you’re interested:
        Good luck GlassCeiling. I agree with a lot of your comments 👍

  4. GlassCeiling

    Hourly rates are atrocious . Good luck affording a home to rent let alone buy .
    There is effectively nil career progression, knowledge and experience are not valued and meaningful clinical input outside of assessing simple compliance and side effects lead to boredom in the role. Pharmacists are in short supply now because we are generally intelligent enough to seek adequate remuneration and job satisfaction .
    Pharmacy is a dead end job ( it is not a career as there is no little to no progression).
    Vested interests in our representative bodies got fat off the status quo at the expense of the evolution of the profession. Here we are.

  5. Raj Khatri

    I finally left pharmacy last year after I developed severe anxiety and hyperventilated until I fainted.
    Ever since I registered 7 years ago, I’ve been chasing the magical land of pharmacy to no avail. Every pharmacy I ended up working at (in Syd) was a slave yard, flogging pharmacists to check 60+/scripts per hour, while simultaneously expecting you to put a dozen tubs of orders away. I was valued purely on my companion selling skills over product knowledge and advice. On weekends, I was left alone to do 350+ scripts as a sole pharmacist, while joggling a million patient queries in store and on the phone.
    I kept thinking this is normal until one Sunday, during a busy rush hour, my eyes went blurry, my chest started pounding and I hyperventilated till I fainted in the back of dispensary. I woke up in the back room to ambulance officers and my technician. I got to go home that day feeling broken and inadequate. I was so embarrassed and resigned from my job after that shift. I thought about going back to pharmacy but every time I decided to apply for a role my anxiety came back. I’m now re-training and back to my old self. Happy, cheerful and laugh again.
    If I have any advice to new graduates, don’t bother. Use your degree to get you to a better profession, because pharmacy is no longer a long, fulfilling career it once used to be.

    • Red Pill

      Sorry to hear that Raj. I don’t think there’s a pharmacist out there that hasn’t been in these situations.
      Well done to you and wish you a speedy recovery. No one ever looks back after they throw in the towel.

  6. Sandy Wong

    I really hope the Guild and PSA are reading these comments and are taking some accountability for this dire situation. It really touched a chord with me reading everyone’s comments here.
    For the record, I’m one of those millennials that did go out rural and worked in a small town for 2 years. I got to save up a little bit and met some interesting people. But overall, was it worth it? Probably not, at least not for me.
    For someone growing up in Sydney, rural life was really dull and it was even harder to make friends. And now that I’m back in Sydney I’ve realised how much worse things have gotten in pharmacy. I wish I’d spent those 2 years back at Uni and studying again.
    The current model of community pharmacy is not clinically challenging or financially rewarding, making all of us dissatisfied and in despair. And with universities like La Trobe taking in students with the ATAR of 65, I can only imagine the level of clinical knowledge we can expect from our pharmacists in a decade to come. This is going to be the last year for me in Pharmacy. I’m starting a new degree next year, one that will not be so divided and broken. Good luck to all of those pharmacists that are finally seeing the reality and are seeking a career change. All I can say, don’t be scared and know that you’re not alone.

    • United we stand

      And then The Guild quietly whispered:
      “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

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