Arkansas Job Market is Still Strong for Pharmacists

Walgreen Co. of Deerfield, Ill., may be closing 27 Arkansas pharmacies, but industry observers don’t think the state’s pharmacists will have trouble finding work in the future.

Walgreens announced earlier this month that it would close 76 pharmacies recently acquired from Stephen LaFrance Pharmacy Inc. of Little Rock. The 27 located in Arkansas were among them.

Walgreens spokesman Jim Graham said Wednesday he could not immediately provide information on how many pharmacists would lose jobs or a timeline of closures.

Mark Riley, executive vice president of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said his organization was concerned about the pharmacists who are losing jobs due to the USA Drug closures, but he believes the demand for pharmacists in the state remains high.

“We believe that they’re all going to have jobs. … These folks are losing their jobs in retail pharmacy, but pharmacists have a lot of options in terms of what their jobs are,” Riley said. “One of the things that we see when we see a group of pharmacists that are available, like in this case or just after graduation, [is] pharmacists moving into more rural areas where there are needs.”

Pharmacists can also work outside of retail in academia, the pharmaceutical industry, long-term care facilities, hospitals and government, he said.

Walgreens has already closed at least three of the USA Drug pharmacies in Arkansas, Riley said, and he believes about 80 pharmacists will lose their jobs once the closures are complete.

Joe Searcy, owner of Rhea Drug Store in Little Rock, thinks central Arkansas is a hard place for pharmacists to find work and Walgreens’ closing of stores will make it tougher. Seven of the USA Drug locations that are going dark are in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

“The central Arkansas market has been tight for two, three years,” Searcy said. “I think there are some openings further out in the state.”

Some of the displaced pharmacists who don’t get jobs with Walgreens may open independent pharmacies once their severance packages no longer limit what they can do, Searcy said.

Prescription demand isn’t decreasing, Searcy said, citing the USA Drug Express at 5209 John F. Kennedy Blvd. in North Little Rock, which was filling 500 prescriptions a day that the nearby Walgreens might not be able to absorb.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to handle that much of an increase overnight,” Searcy said. Searcy has owned Rhea Drug for 29 years.

Graduates of the state’s two pharmacy schools haven’t had past trouble picking up jobs in the state, and job prospects of future graduating classes remain good, according to school officials.

Schwanda Flowers, an associate dean with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Pharmacy in Little Rock, said she didn’t think USA Drug layoffs would alter the job market much.

“I have talked to some USA Drug pharmacists. From what I understand, … Walgreens plans to rehire and keep most of those pharmacists with the company,” she said. “Fewer pharmacies don’t necessarily mean that they need fewer pharmacists.”

At graduation this year, 88 percent of the 105-member UAMS pharmacy class of 2012 had accepted job offers, Flowers said, and the other 12 percent might have been pursuing further training or negotiating with prospective employers.

Most UAMS pharmacy students end up working in Arkansas, she said.

Even if central and northwest Arkansas pharmacist jobs aren’t plentiful, south and northeast Arkansas and the Delta still offer opportunities, Flowers said.

To his knowledge, all 55 of the 2012 graduates from the Harding University College of Pharmacy in Searcy got jobs, said Jeff Mercer, assistant dean of experiential education at the school. This year’s grads were the college’s inaugural class.

However, about 60 percent of Harding’s pharmacy students come from out of state and aren’t dependent on its job market.

Demand for prescriptions and the pharmacists who dispense them should only increase, Mercer said, due to retiring baby boomers and the expansion of health care insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“There’s not anything about the [Walgreens] merger that has changed the volume of prescriptions,” Mercer said. “I see that as continuing to increase.”