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An overdose of pharmacy students

Students at the College of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Just five years ago, universities rushed to open pharmacy schools to fill a projected need. But baby boomer pharmacists are delaying retirement.

A student at the College of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

The class of 2012 at the College of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Kai Ryssdal: Remember this the next time you hear anything about the labor market -- it is, generally speaking a lagging indicator. Tells you a lot about where the economy's been somewhat less about where it's going. Within the labor market, there's a lag effect as well. Industries and occupations that have job openings today might not have those same openings in a couple of years.

Exhibit A for our purposes today is the professional pharmacist. Just five years ago, a pharmacy degree was a near guarantee of permanent and well-paid employment. So much so that a lot of universities started their own schools of pharmacy. In Tennessee, they went from one pharmacy school to half a dozen. So you know what happens next.

Blake Farmer reports from WPLN in Nashville.


Professor: This is Fluoxetine.

Blake Farmer: An automated pill counter pumps out a hundred blue capsules at Belmont University. It's one of three private colleges in Tennessee graduating their first pharmacists this year. The campus facilities are state-of-the-art, but the real attractions for incoming students were signing bonuses and six-figure salaries.

Benson Chiong says he's finding neither.

Benson Chiong: There aren't many jobs for us, like, just popping out at us.

Chiong says he's about to graduate without firm prospects.

Chiong: You know, I really wanted to go back home to Chicago, however, I've heard that people are driving two to three hours out.

Rural areas still need pharmacists, but cities have gotten crowded. Chiong wants to avoid the long commute and get a job in his hometown.

Chiong: So yeah, I'm just hoping.

Universities say the problem is baby boomers aren't retiring. But colleges are steaming ahead with plans to educate the next generation of druggists.

Phil Johnston: Even the accreditors were concerned.

Phil Johnston is the pharmacy dean at Belmont. He admits the agencies that oversee course work worried there might not be enough local drug stores and hospitals to support so many schools. Pharmacists have also been concerned that a glut of graduates may undercut their pay.

Johnston: I've been approached by those practitioners, friends, colleagues said, 'Why are you starting this new program?'

There's prestige in offering a doctoral degree and -- perhaps more importantly -- revenue. For-profit schools have launched some of the country's newest programs. Johnston says Belmont, which is a nonprofit, just saw a need and moved to fill it. But two miles down the street, so did another Christian college.

Professor: These are just some quick things that may come up -- Metronidazole.

Fourth-year students at Lipscomb University are now prepping for their big licensing test. Many in the school's inaugural class have found jobs as the quintessential community pharmacist. But Kayleen Daly looked all over the southeast and decided to hold off for now. She's opting for a year-long residency.

Kayleen Daly: Because of all the pharmacists that are coming out, it's best to have that year of clinical experience under your belt.

John Deason: I do have a couple of leads.

John Deason says he'll be relieved when one becomes a concrete job offer. He has big-time student loans that he can only put off for so long.

Deason: Deferred payments, or if you have to get on an income-based repayment, you can do that too, so it's not like they're going to throw me in prison or something like that.

The pharmacy industry realizes it's hard for students like Deason to find jobs. The American Society of Health System Pharmacists recently authored a report. It's titled -- "Expansion of Pharmacy Education: Time for Reconsideration." Douglas Scheckelhoff is a vice president of the pharmacist group.

Douglas Scheckelhoff: When you almost double the number of graduates over the course of 8-10 years, over time that doubling of the graduates is going to have an impact.

Besides not having enough jobs for everyone, the report suggests the quality of pharmacists could also suffer.

Roger Davis: We're here today to establish a new tradition...

Lipscomb's pharmacy dean speaks over a sea of soon-to-be graduates. He hopes to start a tradition of 100 percent placement. He assures the students they can find jobs in pharmacy. But instead of taking their pick, many may be forced to take what they can get.

In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.

A student at the College of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

The class of 2012 at the College of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

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