HCA Healthcare
April 01, 2019

SOURCE: Post and Courier

Dottie Farfone, owner of Dottie’s Pharmacy, prepares to fill a prescription Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Farfone says she has former interns show up a year after graduating from pharmacy school and they still don’t have a job due to an excess of workers. Brad Nettles/Staff
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As health leaders debate what should be done about a lack of doctors and nurses in South Carolina, one corner of the medical profession seems to be awash in talent: pharmacists. 

It’s easy to see why an education in pharmacy, with its $123,000 mean wage in South Carolina, can be an attractive career route. But people entering the profession in the Palmetto State might struggle to find work, depending on where they want to live.

Craig Burridge, CEO of the South Carolina Pharmacy Association, said there is an oversupply — though at least one academic disagrees. 

“We do have more pharmacists then jobs available at this point unless they leave the state,” Burridge said in an email. “Starting salaries have indeed dropped for retail positions.”

About 6,000 pharmacists live and work in South Carolina, according to the Columbia-based group. Nationwide, the industry’s labor supply is expected to outpace demand by 2025,  according to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis.

There were jobs aplenty when Dottie Farfone, owner of local Dottie’s Pharmacy in West Ashley, graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1999.

The job market is much tougher for newcomers today, Farfone said. People regularly stop her pharmacy to ask for employment. Farfone has to turn them away. Dottie’s is also a training site for local pharmacy students. Farfone has noticed her interns struggling to find full-time work once they get their degrees. 

“They’ll come back a year later and they still don’t have a job,” she said. 

One reason is the consolidation of big pharmacy retailers — Walgreens’ acquisition of Rite Aid stores last year is one example — that often result in store closings and job cuts.

While employment opportunities might be scarce in metro areas, the field is still expected to grow in the years to come. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected the number of pharmacists needed in South Carolina will grow by about 8 percent between 2016 and 2026. By comparison, the need for registered nurses will increase by about 19 percent. 

Stephen Cutler, dean of the College of Pharmacy at USC, disagreed that the market has too many pharmacists, saying his students have a 99 percent job-placement rate within six months of graduating. The university doesn’t track exactly where they land, he added. 

If there are too many pharmacists, federal data shows, their average wages seem not to have been affected, at least in broad terms. Salaries overall in South Carolina grew by about 6 percent between 2013 and 2017, only a little slower than those for registered nurses.

In the Charleston area, for one, the job market for pharmacists is particularly competitive, said Philip Hall, dean of the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Pharmacy.

“The Charleston market is extremely tight, and it has been as long as I can remember,” he said. “It is a highly sought after area.”

Hall said MUSC students hear the message early in their education that they should consider leaving the area after completing their studies. The reason is that it’s so much easier to find steady employment in the state’s rural areas.

Federal data shows there are 250 job openings for pharmacists in South Carolina every year. MUSC produces 70 to 80 graduates annually, with another 100 coming out of USC in Columbia. Two other schools in the state — Presbyterian College in Clinton and South University’s Columbia campus — also have pharmacy schools. 

The state recently approved a $53 million improvement project for MUSC’s pharmacy school, with work scheduled to begin in 2020. But enrollment won’t not increase once it’s finished, Hall said.

The deans of the MUSC and USC pharmacy schools both said they haven’t increased class size in recent years. Instead, they’re revising the curriculum to keep pace with changing and expanding job requirements. 

Hospitals, for instance, are giving their pharmacists more responsibilities, requiring schools to adapt, Cutler said.

Doug Baldwin, director of pharmacy at Trident Medical Center, said the increased responsibility has made the North Charleston hospital a more fulfilling place to work.

He said that he has no trouble filling positions with candidates he considers among the top in their profession. He also can require entry-level applicants have at least a year of residency, unlike when he got out of school.

“I could go anywhere and they would pay top dollar for me,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore. It’s a tougher job market nationwide.”

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.