By Katie Zavadski

Steven Pak was 17 when he committed to six years of pharmacy school in 2010. His family had struggled financially during his childhood, and his mother, an immigrant from South Korea, had heard about the career’s upsides: prestige, a professional degree, and a six-figure salary, all before his 25th birthday. Though he had originally wanted to study acting, Pak agreed that pharmacy was the more responsible choice. He was admitted to the PharmD program at St. John’s University, and began his degree there the following year.

Pak’s mother was not alone in urging her child to pursue this career: All across America, teenagers were making similar calculations. A predicted shortage of pharmacists over the last decade, combined with an expected expansion of the pharmacist’s role in medical care, made it a lucrative career path. Even as the economy struggled in the mid-aughts, pharmacy graduates easily found big salaries, 9-to-5 jobs, and the respect that came along with handling medications. Nicholas Popovich, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy, tells me that, “Some signing bonuses even involved a car, that type of thing.”

Now, the profession is on the verge of a crisis: The number of pharmacy jobs has dried up but the number of pharmacy students keeps growing. It’s difficult to find a cushy, full-time job and metropolitan job markets are saturated. PharmD candidates are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and each year, there are more and more of them in a six-year-long pipeline. When Pak graduates in 2016 with a PharmD degree, he’ll have up to $150,000 in loans.

The pharmacy boom began in 2000. That year, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services suggested that 98 percent of Americans lived in an area adversely affected by a pharmacist shortage. Almost 6,000 pharmacist jobs stood empty, and the shortage was only predicted to grow worse. The following year, a group now known as the Pharmacy Workforce Center predicted a shortfall of 157,000 pharmacists nationally within two decades as demand and responsibilities increased while the number of pharmacists stood still. As Baby Boomers aged, the thought went, pharmacists would be able to fill some roles traditionally held by doctors, and would be able to counsel them on how to take the medications prescribed to them.

Quickly, the free market kicked in. Over the last 20-odd years, the number of pharmacy schools in the United States has almost doubled. There were just 72 such schools in 1987; today, there are more than 130.
At first, graduates found work easily. No matter where in the country a young pharmacist wanted to settle, the number of jobs available far exceeded the number of people qualified to fill them. Slowly, the numbers began to even out, and 2009 marked a turning point: The number of jobs available was roughly on par with the number of pharmacists searching for work. The days of signing bonuses and vast job choices were over.

Purdue University, whose pharmacy school is ranked as one of the best in the nation, makes employment information about its graduates publicly available. By and large, the numbers are impressive—from salaries to unemployment statistics. But some statistics have changed. In 2008, graduates got up to eight offers; in 2009, up to 12. These days, the range is from one to three offers per graduate. In 2008, only one student was still seeking work when the university surveyed the graduating class; by 2012, that number had grown to eight students, and by 2013, to 12. (The average graduating class has about 150 students.)

According to the Aggregate Demand Index (ADI), which measures pharmacist job outlooks, employers in the Northeast began reporting more job candidates than slots in December 2011. Quickly, everywhere from Hawaii to Utah became a tough market. Now, only about ten states have decent employment prospects, with enough openings for every job seeker. In the rest of the country, pharmacists are seeing either a surplus of candidates, or a rough balance of supply and demand.

This would not be a problem if there were not so many new pharmacists in the pipeline. Students who entered six-year programs in 2009 will only graduate next spring. Now, young people who committed early on to a long, expensive program worry about finding a stable, well paying job upon completion. By the time the last of these students graduate, jobs will be even harder to find. And with every passing year, the graduating classes get larger as the field gets worse.
"My estimate [is] 20 percent unemployment of new grads by 2018," Daniel Brown, a pharmacy professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2013. "The job market is [stagnant], but we're still pumping out graduates every year.”

More here: Pharmacy School Crisis: Why the Good Jobs Are Drying Up | New Republic