Pharmacy grads may face tight job market

Inaugural class from Lipscomb, Belmont will need dose of patience in tight market

Tom Wilemon
The Tennessean; May 5, 2012

Will Walker will receive his pharmacy degree today from Lipscomb University — one of four colleges in Tennessee that are putting druggists into the job pool for the first time.

Belmont University today also will bestow pharmacy degrees to its inaugural class. The 71 Lipscomb graduates and 65 Belmont graduates begin their careers when demand for pharmacists has decreased, but university deans expect employment prospects to brighten because of an improving economy, an aging population and expanding health-care coverage.

Walker says he feels fortunate to be accepted for a residency program offered by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

"I was one of those little kids who always knew I wanted to be a pharmacist, which is strange to some people," Walker said. "I had lot of mentors that were pharmacists. I saw the impact that they were able to make in the community. I wanted to follow that lead and step into that role."

Before 2008, the only place in the state he could have gone to school to achieve his goal was the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis — a drive of more than seven hours from his home town of White Pine. That changed when Lipscomb, Belmont, Union University in Jackson and East Tennessee State University added programs the same year. They, along with colleges across the nation, were responding to a shortage of pharmacists.

Around 2000, concerns arose that the nation would not have enough druggists. Pharmacy Manpower Project Inc. set up a monthly tracking system in partnership with Touro University in California.

"Just as many of these new schools were starting to graduate people, we had the beginning of the recession and sort of a turnaround," said Katherine K. Knapp, the dean of pharmacy at Touro. "It is nobody's fault. There is an imbalance right now between what the market is demanding in the way of pharmacists and the numbers of graduates who are being graduated. The graduates are greater than the unmet demand."

The Pharmacy Manpower measure, which in 2003 showed the state approaching "high demand: difficult to fill open positions," now indicates demand in balance with supply for Tennessee. New pharmacists have better job prospects here. After Texas, the state is tied with California for having the best demand for the profession.

Phil Johnston, the dean of pharmacy for Belmont, said he's not worried about a glut. Pharmacists will play in integral role in expanding care to more people because of the Affordable Care Act. And even if the U.S. Supreme Court should strike down the law, more pharmacists will still be needed, he said.

Pharmacists who delayed retirement during the Great Recession because of sagging retirement portfolios will leave their jobs at some point, Johnston said. Another factor for better job security is aging baby boomers requiring more medications.