Are You Prepared for Underemployment?

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As a pharmacist or student pharmacist are you prepared for the possibility of a lay off?  How about underemployment or a reduction in work hours?  Or, worst case, you get fired.

Are you in another profession? This may be a window into the future as automation increases. Automation may eliminate less jobs than previously predicted, but what might things look like with increasing populations and more automation? That is, with more workers than needed to complete all the human work tasks?

This article has some very pharmacist specific details, but the principles apply for any career.  Are you prepared?  Keep reading.

No one wants to think about these things, but, sadly, they are happening more often in the pharmacy profession.  Especially reduced work hours, which I fear may be becoming a new industry norm.

And, really, it shouldn’t be that surprising.  It’s been commonplace for years that newly hired technicians in many pharmacies are only ever hired on as part time employees.  Many of them “get lucky” and end up with full time work, but, it’s not a promise.

I’ve never felt this is the way to treat another skilled, licensed professional.  But they’ve got an out.  The fact is, there are many jobs available to technicians who should wish to transition out of the profession.

That isn’t really the case for pharmacists.

“According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s 2017 Graduating Student National Summary Report, the average student loan debt for PharmD graduates amounted to $163,496 in 2017, a 9.5% increase from 2015.”

That’s a HUGE average loan debt.  Consider what the outliers at the higher end of the curve look like.

The Pharmacist Demand Index or PDI currently estimates that supply about equals demand for pharmacists in the job market, despite the amount of annual graduating pharmacists nearly doubling from 2000 to 2018.

The PDI may say there is not a glut, but, ask pharmacists out there and you will hear that it’s getting significantly harder to find a job.

With the amount of focused education involved, both undergrad and postgraduate doctoral studies, you’d think it wouldn’t be a problem to find work.

A Pharm.D. coming out of an average of 8 years+ of education with $163,000 of student loan debt is not expecting to be faced with a situation of unemployment or underemployment.  Sadly though, this is becoming more common.

Would you invest that amount of effort and money into the education for a career with an unsure job market?

By the time many realize how difficult it can be to find the right job, they are so far along and invested in the educational path that it can be hard to imagine a shift.  I would guess that many decide underemployment is preferable to starting over in education or pursuing a lower paying but more in demand field.

Of course, there ARE options.  If you are willing to move wherever they need someone, whenever in your career, you can find a job.  Many pharmacists are willing to do this when they first graduate.  But what about those further along in their careers?

So, some are willing to move.  But consider, with the investment involved in gaining a pharmacy education, many graduates plan to be able to find work in their choice of locations.  I think that is fair given the education and the fact that there is an accessible pharmacy near almost every community.

A worrying trend:

A new trend has developed over the last few years and seems to be spreading:  “full time flex.”  In this model, or whatever name it may happen to go by, the employee is considered full time at somewhere around 30 to 32 hours a week.

Does the PDI consider underemployment of pharmacists when calculating their market demand ratios?

I really don’t know the answer to that, but I would suspect not.

For a good deal of time I have heard, in areas with more of a pharmacist surplus, that new graduates in retail are having trouble finding full time work.  The only position available are part time, or perhaps, the full time “flex” described above.

But the problem isn’t just for new pharmacists anymore.  From what I have become aware of, multiple retailers have reclassified what it means to be “full time” so even long time employees can now be faced with a reduction in hours.

What does this mean in practice?

Being “full time” at less than 40 hours might not mean anything.  Plenty of these pharmacists are still getting the 40 hours a week that they expect.  But the corporations have signaled to employees that 40 hours is by no means a guarantee.

For others, it has meant abrupt changes in the amount of take home pay that they are receiving, and that could either mean big life changes or the hunt for a new job.

But is a new job out there?  Is it worth it to make the shift with the loss of benefits that can come with a job change?

Remember, most positions are not offering the ability to negotiate at sign on anymore.  With a near equal supply and demand, employers do not need to offer benefits above the baseline.  Unless you are signing on to a particularly hard to staff area, jobs know there is someone hungry out there.  They might wait a little longer to fill a position, but they seem inclined to do so versus offer an extra week of vacation a year.

Why the change?

It’s not like I have a crystal ball or a lead with corporate retail executives, so these are just my educated opinions.

For a number of years pharmacy retailers have been trying to get away from the use of staffing companies.

The progression I have seen is that retailers were willing to offer overtime to their pharmacists rather than pay a staffing agency.

That makes sense to me; why pay someone 1.5x normal pay or more, if they’re not even your employee.  I don’t know how much staffing agencies demand directly from the retailers, but, I’m pretty sure it’s at least as much as someone on overtime.  The staffing agencies then typically pay the employees less than what a standard retail pharmacist makes (by a little bit).

So retailers had seemed inclined to pay their own employees overtime rather than contract out with a staffing company.  This makes sense for a variety of reasons.  Your own employees already know your workflows and processes.  If they are staff from the same store, they already have relationships with the customers.  Why would you want to pay an outside agent to come in and do the same job for the same price as your own employee?

That seemed to work for the last decade.

As the bottom line becomes more important and there seems to be plenty of pharmacists knocking on doors for work, the “reduced hours but still full time” has allowed employers to increase their flexibility even further.

This is an ideal situation, from the employer perspective.  They can now increase the size of their workforce while reducing their likelihood of overtime payouts.

Instead of THREE pharmacists who work 40 hours a week, they can take on FOUR pharmacists who work 30 hours a week.  Should the need for more work hours arise due to sick calls or vacations, there are now an additional 40 hours that can be pulled from without generating overtime.  Couple that with the fact that a good portion of these people have mortgage payments and student loans to repay… they’ll be hungry to accept any “extra” shifts offered.

This is a small scale example, but consider this scaled across a corporate retail pharmacist labor pool.  That is SIGNIFICANT cost savings to the employer.

This may also allow retailers to “make room” for the new graduates, many of which are willing to take any job offered, often at significant pay cuts over what a veteran pharmacist would take.

Making room for the new grads sure makes them look like the good guys doesn’t it?  Plus, they can cut a few hours from the old timers check and hire on more lower benefitted and paid employees.

Does that make it right?

The trend over the last decade, not just in pharmacy, of heavily restricting “full time positions” and only offering what most would call part time work (with perhaps the possibility of more hours if they need you) was often blamed on “Obamacare.

The fact is, “America’s Part Time Workforce Is Huge… and at it’s highest level in in about 30 years.”  Maybe it was because of Obamacare, maybe it wasn’t, but the big shift has signaled to employers that they can get away with these labor arrangements.  The employers certainly haven’t suffered for it.  The article I link to describe this possibility as being “the new norm” and calls this trend “hidden unemployment.”  Hidden unemployment being a situation where people want to work more hours than they can get.

Hidden unemployment has hit professionals too.  It’s not just the new norm for lower income workers.  It may be the new norm for everyone.

ALL workers should take notice.  As I said above, I’ve watched this trend develop in the hiring of pharmacy technicians for many years.  I, as well as every other pharmacist I talked to thought that it was no way to treat the backbone of pharmacy operations.

And it’s created problems.  The best technicians who can’t get the full time hours they need or want… they just move on.  They take the skills they learned in pharmacy and transfer it to something else, which isn’t that hard to do when you’re making an average of $32,000 a year.

But where are the pharmacists going to turn?  What’s a pharmacist with a family, a mortgage and staggering student loan debt to do when they become chronically underemployed?  It’s not easy to transition out of a niche career with a median salary of $122,000 a year, especially when, compared to other high paying and healthcare positions, pharmacists are almost entirely tied to working in a pharmacy setting.  There isn’t the potential for piecemeal remote or telecommuting opportunities as there are with many other healthcare professions.

And what about non compete clauses?

Oh! You forgot about these?!  Well if it doesn’t just keep getting better and better!

Any pharmacist working in a corporate retail position is going to be faced with non competition or conflict of interest clauses.  That means you can’t work for another retail competitor.

So when they cut your hours or you can only get a part time job, you can’t work for another retailer to make up the difference.  How’s that to kick you while you’re down?

It’s actually comical.  You may have two retailers each looking for a part time employee, and a pharmacist looking for two part time jobs to make up the equivalent of a full time job… but you can only work for one of them.

What’s your plan?

I would suggest you be highly aware of the potential that underemployment of pharmacists is indeed the new norm.

Be smart with your money.  When you are planning for the early stages of your career, I would factor yourself making a salary that makes no more than what you would expect to make at 30 hours a week.  If you want to be really smart about it, plan for 20 hours.

Be aware that this may not change.  Sure, you’ll probably get 40 hours a week here and there, but, don’t count on it.  Predictions are that more pharmacist positions will appear as pharmacists transition into clinics and primary care teams.  But, they’ve been saying that for 20 years and I haven’t seen it happen at any level that I would call it “industry changing.”

If you’re still in school, see if you can keep at it.  Maybe plan to graduate and take on a part time job as a pharmacist while pursuing further education in something that couples well with a pharmacy degree, such as business or public health administration.  If you’ve got a knack for IT, that may be a further niche for yourself.

Work to generate income streams that are independent of your pharmacy career.  There are plenty of resources online for exploring this.

Perhaps, educate yourself about the growing number of people who are pursuing financial independence.  Check out some sites like RockStarFinance, Dave Ramsey or Mr. Money Moustache, or read my website, ThatFrugalPharmacist.com

Why do I feel so passionate about this topic?

I’m one of those underemployed pharmacists right now.  I had a less than ideal work situation which ended recently (you’ll find more leading up to this in other blog posts, if interested).  That was fine and planned for, because I had a back up per diem job.

My per diem job was one of those that recently changed their staffing structure so that full timers are getting less than full time, and part timers are getting even less.  With the full timers and part timers fighting for the available hours (it’s gotten very political!), per diem people like me, even though I was previously working 12-20 hours a week aren’t getting anything!

Pharmacists I know personally are having to reconsider their entire financial structure.  Some are looking for other employment, but so far, all they’ve been able to find is more “full time” at reduced hours jobs.  Others are looking to relocate if possible.  Others are trying to speed up their retirement plans.

I’m very happy to say that I’ve planned well and am currently riding this out fairly comfortably.  Using free software like Personal Capital I’ve been paying close attention to my finances and have a good idea of how long I can afford to be off work.  Between the two jobs that I had before I was able to save enough that my family doesn’t have major stresses while I look for a new position.  And, lucky for me, I don’t need and am not even sure that I want full time work!

I was already planning to achieve early financial independence and pursue some version of early retirement, or at least, not full time pharmacist work.  Just not quite yet.  I’m on the hunt for the right job but also investigating other options and opportunities.

Who would have thought I’d be a pharmacist, on unemployment?  Are you prepared?

3 comments

  1. Welcome to the world of 21st century employment. It is shocking isn’t it? I have a BS from a highly regarded engineering school and my MBA from a highly regarded NYC public college. After the dot.com bubble burst, that had as much depreciation as driving a new car off the parking lot. I’m glad you had a semblance of a plan, because let me tell you…you’ll never find your ideal work situation again. (or it’s highly unlikely) I don’t mean to sound callous, but, that’s my experience, and that’s what I’ve observed. Your most marketable skills now are what you’re doing w/ the blog and/or social media. These are the growth areas. However, that will be a while before it probably pays off. With automation…I can’t see a time in the future where they say…”oh, yes…let’s higher MORE humans”. Put the expense of your education behind you…and focus on what’s next for a smart person like yourself.

    1. I think you’re spot on with everything there. I guess I’m lucky that I don’t really have an ideal work situation.. I can see myself working full time or part time. I was struggling to decide which was the right choice for me and my family. Now, the right choice is whichever I can get!

      I’m not seeing any payback from the blog and social media yet. I feel I would be much more successful if I didn’t blog anonymously but, clearly, with content like this, I don’t want potential employers searching my name and finding this. Caught between a rock and a hard place there. Not to mention I’m pretty private and low key in real life and value my anonymity.

      I really hope that others can see the trend in my industry and shift the perspective to themselves. I should probably update the post to reflect my points on new trends with increasing automation. It’s probably not that we all won’t be working, we’ll be working, but not enough.

      In a way, Pharmacy is a prime example. We have so much automated that there is less and less need for pharmacist per transaction and prescription. A high paid canary in the coal mine perhaps.

  2. Very depressing job market for pharmacists! The thing is — I can’t move at this point in my life. I’m mortgage-free, have my young grandchildren in this town, and moving within my own state wouldn’t mean the job would even be there in another year the way things are going. Two local hospitals closed here last month — adding 10 more pharmacists to the list of unemployed. I’ve been unemployed as a pharmacist since April 2018. For the five previous years, I was unemployed at 30 hours per week. It’s depressing.

    I’ve taken a full-time job (since December 2018) that pays the bills/property taxes/food/etc. that’s healthcare-related with lots of room for advancement with a Fortune 500 company over the next couple of years. I have to face the hard truth: I may never be hired as a traditional pharmacist again. So, I have to find ways — more than one way — to support myself and bring in multiple sources of income.

    I have to tell you though — I’m grateful to have a job, but at the same time I suffer the internal humiliation and shame of not having a job as a pharmacist. It hurts me to the core. It’s a deep shame and sense of hopelessness I have a hard time shaking. I’m doing my best to get over it, but jeez it hurts and make me cry every time I think about it I put on a good face for everyone because it serves no good purpose for me to sulk and be sad. I have to get on with living.

    I did enjoy my 8 months of being unemployed. Luckily, I had a large emergency fund to live off of and also collected unemployment for 6 months. I used the unemployment money to help me set up my business to work out of my home. As of starting the job in December, I still have money in savings without having to touch either of my retirement accounts. I have to work 8 more years before I can collect full SS benefits at 70 1/2, but I have no intentions to stop working and earning a wage as long as I can find some company to hire me. I went on 3 nice vacations (very inexpensively — no more than $600 for ALL 3 trips), got to spend lots of fun time with my grandson, and spent time socializing and working on house projects.

    I have school debt, but currently deferred — I can’t pay it at this time. I would love to start a support group for underemployed and/or unemployed pharmacists.

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