Societal trends are leading to significant growth in the pharmacy industry as the aging of our population leads to increased demand for prescription medications and advances in research lead to new medication treatments for more diseases. That’s why the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected, in data published in 2016, a 12% increase in pharmacy technician jobs over the course of a decade, equating to over 47,000 positions that will need to be filled.
 
BLS also noted that “pharmacy technicians may be need to take on a greater role in pharmacy operations because pharmacists are increasingly performing more patient care activities such as giving flu shots” and predicted that pharmacy techs “will need to perform tasks such as collecting patient information, preparing more types of medications, and verifying the work of other technicians, tasks formerly done by pharmacists.”
 
This shortage affects both hospitals and retail pharmacies and requires employers to focus on building a pipeline of job candidates who possess the skills they need. Increasingly, that means working with education partners who either have in place or can customize programs that produce high quality employees. How should employers approach educational institutions? What should they look for? How can they help make these partnerships effective?
 
The BLS describes the duties of pharmacy techs generally as:
  • Collecting information needed to fill prescriptions
  • Packaging and labeling prescriptions
  • Keeping track of inventory
  • Accepting payment and processing insurance claims
  • Entering patients/customer information into computer systems
  • Talking to patients/customers and arranging for them to speak with pharmacists when necessary
Even bearing in mind those basic responsibilities, it is important to be conscious of the constant pace of innovation that often makes it necessary to review and sometimes revamp training programs. We have found it extremely valuable to utilize industry advisory committees, so that executives from some of the retailers and hospitals employing future technicians can work closely with curriculum developers to ensure that students are focused on the skills that are most relevant in real world situations. We have found this model to be very effective—enabling the sharing of information among peers, facilitating the identification of industry trends and emerging needs, and giving educators the tools they need to develop on point curricula. Continual communication between industry committees and the institution is also essential to a program’s success.
 
What we’ve learned from our Pharmacy Industry Advisory Committee is the employers are looking for some skills you’d expect: dependability, attention to detail, facility with math, and data entry. They are also looking for good communications skills, especially in retail settings, where techs need to have empathy, patience and the ability to relate to customers—many of whom come in feeling ill or having just received bad news from their doctors.
 
As is the case in many other industries, these so-called soft skills—the ability to communicate and interact effectively with customers, coworkers and outside entities, like insurance companies or doctors’ offices—are increasingly crucial in today’s workplace. Those with a command of these soft skills will be more valuable employees and will be in a better position to perform at higher levels.
 
To be an effective educational partner, a school must have a deep understanding of the industry and individual businesses. Being accredited and being able to place students on the path toward externships and certification is an important credibility factor, but they also need to have a strong and successful track record of contracting with companies to train workers for specific jobs. Having long-term relationships with those employers is a very good indication that they can develop programs that will make a real, tangible difference. 
 
Finally, pharmacies should work with education partners who treat curriculum development as an ongoing process. As technology changes, as demographic forces and R&D combine to create new challenges and better outcomes, workforce requirements will evolve as well—and educational institutions need to be flexible enough to accommodate themselves to that reality. 
 
A pharmacy’s workforce is its lifeblood. Having the wrong employees or poorly trained employees can be as much of a problem as having too few employees. But with effective partners and well-conceived educational programs, they can address that challenge and ultimately produce the workers they need both now and for many years to come.
 
George Chunderlik, RPh has more than 35 years in the retail pharmacy industry and currently serves as the Advisory Committee Chairperson for the Pharmacy Technician Program at the Community College of Allegheny County—South Campus in West Mifflin, PA. He can be reached at George.Chunderlik@gianteagle.com.

Jane Coughanour, Professor of Allied Health, is the Program Director/Coordinator of the Pharmacy Technician program at the Community College of Allegheny County, South Campus, West Mifflin Pa. She can be reached at jcoughanour@ccac.edu.