Creating Career Ladders in Pharmacy

pharmacy career ladder
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Someone once said “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” This may be true. But far too often in the pharmacy profession, pharmacists (and pharmacy technicians!) feel as though they are in a job that is heading nowhere at all. While the company may encourage career growth, they provide no obvious “next steps” for the employee to take. Where they come in is essentially where they will always stay. In this case, “progression” in one’s career ultimately means looking outside the company to learn new skills and take on new roles.

In order to retain top talent and provide opportunities for growth (both in income and opportunity) pharmacy businesses and health systems need to develop meaningful career ladders and paths as a way to encourage motivated employees to remain within the company while learning new skills. Failure to do so will typically result in costly turnover as your most talented employees will need to look elsewhere to develop their careers. For the purpose of this brief article I will use the terms “ladder” and “path” interchangeably, though in a more technical sense a “ladder” is vertical progression and a “path” can be in any direction.

Why don’t all employers have well-developed career progression plans for their pharmacy employees? The fact is that putting together such a program is a lot of work. The planning and execution required to carefully craft the job descriptions, requirements, training, experience and communication is intimidating at best. It also takes someone with the leadership vision to understand the importance of this focus as well as the patience to see the long-term results. Developing and communicating your company career path program takes time, and the results do not show up immediately.

Some employers are deceived into believing they have career ladders in place because they have jobs like “pharmacist level 1” and “pharmacist level 2,” etc. While this may in fact indicate that a career path exists, far too often (in my experience) these are relatively meaningless titles in which the employee does practically the same thing every day that they did before, with the addition of a slight bump in pay. They tend to reflect the “time” an employee has been with the company more than the actual attainment of new skills and responsibilities.

So how does a pharmacy employer begin to develop true “ladders” within their organization to provide a path for their employees to grow?

First it requires a commitment of resources. You won’t create a best-in-class career ladder within your organization on the back of a napkin over lunch. You may need to bring in the help of an outside consultant who has worked with organizations like your own and understands how other companies function. At the very least you will need some experienced HR help, input from management and staff from all areas, and a project manager to keep everyone focused on next steps.

Second, creating effective career ladders will require a deep dive into the current roles and responsibilities as described in your job descriptions. These must be carefully compared to actual responsibilities being carried out by staff day to day. Too often our “job descriptions” simply do not match up to what is really happening. Be careful not to build your ladders on job descriptions that don’t really match what is going on. If needed, change your job descriptions before trying to build “steps up” from a foundation that doesn’t really exist.

Third, carefully consider what additional skills, training, degrees or experience are needed for an employee to move from one position to another. How will that training be provided? How will their readiness be assessed? Does your company offer a mentoring program for individuals who want to learn from those who have been doing the job successfully already? Do additional training resources need to be developed and will you need to get funding to develop those resources? It is critical in my opinion that progressive levels within the same basic job (e.g. pharmacist level 1, level 2, etc.) focus on skills actually meaningful to the efficiency, goals and priorities of the department.

Fourth, and finally, all career progression programs must be adequately and continuously discussed with employees so that they actually know these opportunities exist. Too often management assumes that the things we have been thinking about are also the things that everyone else is thinking about. They aren’t. The most robust and comprehensive career path program will fail miserably if no one knows about it. Today more than ever employees are looking to take control of their careers. Pharmacies, health systems, and pharmacy-related businesses that manage to give the most opportunities to their employees are the ones that will rise to the top in the end.

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