Did you ever ask yourself how to tell the difference between a Pharmacist and a Pharmacy Technician? Major retail pharmacies often have everybody behind the counter wearing those white coats. So unless you look at their name tags or badges, you won’t be able to know the difference unless you ask. But there is a huge difference between the two, and in this article you will learn how to take the shorter route to working at a pharmacy by becoming a Pharmacy Technician. It can be start of a new career, and has some practical advantages for people who prefer not to sit behind a desk all day. We will also discuss the kind of salary you can expect to make, and future career directions.
To start with, becoming a Pharmacy Tech will require you to be reasonably good at math and science. This means it is not something anyone can just decide to do because it sounds interesting or challenging. As you continue to read this article, take the time to do a self-evaluation of sorts and ask yourself whether this career direction is where you want to go. Think of the position as one that is the go-between for the customer and the pharmacist. Maybe that is why they wear the white coats, because they want the customer to see them as trained professionals – which is true to a point. Pharmacy Techs work with both the customer and the degreed Pharmacist, so need to have a people orientated personality to successfully carry out their duties. There will also be some preparation and dispensing of medication as part of the job, and of course, being able to explain the specific instructions on how to use the medication and any potential side effects to the customer. If that sounds like a lot to know, it is.
But not all Pharmacy Techs work in retail stores. Some will work in hospitals, which is an entirely different set of responsibilities. For example, a position in a hospital may require you to properly measure and prepare a drug that will go into a patient’s IV rig. It is also more likely that a Pharmacy Tech in a hospital will spend more time in the laboratory instead of dealing with the public. A third alternative is working at a mail order pharmacy, which is more like working in an office environment. Your exposure to the public is almost nil, and most of the people you will be interacting with will be pharmacists and other Pharmacy Techs. If what you have been reading up to now interests you, you will want to consider which of these three major career avenues you want to pursue.
Regardless of which avenue you choose, you should have a genuine interest in helping people because in the end, that is exactly what you will be doing. The position is STEM-oriented, meaning you should have an above average interest in subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, and general mathematics. This interest is not to keep you interested in becoming a Pharmacy Tech but is essential for your success in any related program of education. Your ability to effectively communicate with people is also a key characteristic to have a successful career.
Becoming a Pharmacy Technician with No School
Before continuing on what schools and training you will need to become a Certified Pharmacy Technician, it is important to mention that there are states that allow people to become Pharmacy Techs with zero training or education. In other words, you can have the title of Pharmacy Tech without a single day of training or a single hour of classroom education. Colorado, Delaware, Wisconsin, and Hawaii are just a few examples of states that have no specific requirements. You can find the state-by-state listing here.
This may be a good choice for people who want to get some hands-on experience and training with the career before deciding on whether to go through the formal training or even become a Pharmacist. Expect the pay to be lower than a Certified Pharm Tech, but that has the potential to change with some training and experience under your belt.
As we move into discussing the more formal approach to becoming a Pharmacy Technician, it is easy to see that the requirements to being hired can vary widely from state to state. So take the time to look into the specific requirements of the state you intend to work in and see how portable your credentials are. You may be able to only work in a few states or most states, and if moving is in your near future you will definitely want to check out everything in detail.
Deciding on the Formal Path
Now that you have decided on going to school, the question is where you should go and how much it will cost. This decision will be based on what state you will be working in and their specific requirements. There are three basic types of formal education for future Pharmacy Technicians. The first is an online program which suits many people who are currently working and need the flexibility online classes offer. Then there is the more traditional road of the full time, in-class program. A third option is the hybrid program which combines online courses with in-class instruction. Many people find this hybrid option the best because they do more than just book learn and are willing to give up some time flexibility to get the best of both worlds.
Of course, don’t choose the first school that offers the training and education. Some programs are better than others, and this is especially important if you intend to work in a state that has more stringent requirements. Remember that the cost of the education is also important since if you have to take out student loans they will have to be paid back. Find the best mix of cost and quality that fits in with your type of program (online, in-class, hybrid).
One criteria you have to consider is whether the school is offering a degree, diploma, or certification. State requirements may require a specific type of education, and for some people they feel more accomplished by earning a degree instead of a certification. But what is more important will be the next step – passing your state’s certification exam.
Depending on your current situation, you may want to opt for a one year certification program. It is reasonable cheap and you can work or even attend college while working towards your certification. The 2 year program should result in an Associate’s Degree. It will take longer and thus be more expensive, but you will have the advantage of being able to use that degree later to earn a 4 year degree in a related field. Remember, at this point you should be thinking career instead of job. Whichever path you choose, be sure to check if the school has an accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).
Some online websites are recommending an externship, which is a fancy way of saying you should get some work experience under your belt while in school. For most people, this falls under the category of “it depends.” If you are already working you likely won’t have the time to do it. If you aren’t working, you are likely to want to start making money right away. The advantage of the externship is that you won’t have to worry about losing your job because an externship technically isn’t a job, it is practical experience.
The Certification Option
The issue of the ACPE is critical if you want to get the national certification that will give you access to almost any Pharmacy Technician position in the country. You will be able to take the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board exam and become Board Certified if you pass. But the criteria for just taking the exam requires more than just having a Pharm Tech education.
- You will have to have a high school diploma or GED
- You will have to disclose any criminal history from your past
- You will have to meet the State Board of Pharmacy licensure requirements
- You have to agree and comply with all the policies of the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board
And of course, you have to achieve a passing score on the exam. A peek into the exam, which you can take a sample of at the PTCB’s website (see above) shows the exam is multiple choice. You are allowed 110 minutes to complete 90 questions, which comes down to about a minute a question. If you can handle that, then set your sights on taking the exam down the road.
What to Expect in School
To give you an idea of what specific classes you can expect to take, here is a sample course list with a few helpful comments.
- Introduction to Pharmacy
- History of Pharmacy - Every major field of study will have an introductory course and history course. It helps to know how we got where we are.
- Medical and Pharmaceutical Terminology - Terminology is another essential for any major field of study. It demonstrates you know how to “talk the talk.”
- Regulatory Laws and Professional Standards - There are plenty of laws you need to know. In a society where everyone is looking to sue everyone else, a single violation is likely to at least cost you your job.
- Dosage Forms and Routes of Administration - Not everything is about just swallowing pills.
- Systems of Measurement - Ratios, Proportions, Decimals, and Percentage
- Antibiotics, Antifungals, and Antiviral
- Anesthetics, Narcotic Pain Relievers, Psychiatric Drugs, and Drugs for CNS Disorders
- Community Pharmacy Operations - Interpreting and Processing Prescriptions; Patient Charts
- There is a certain amount of medical administration knowledge you will have to acquire.
- Third-Party Payments - You can expect to deal with insurance companies on a regular basis, so you have been warned.
A detailed list of what academic objectives a quality school will require of you can be found here.
This is just a sample list of a few classes that are required for an Associate’s Degree at an average college. The names of the classes may be different where you choose to go, but the basic content will be the same. It is interesting that not many online descriptions of a Pharmacy Technician’s education include working with insurance companies, but it is worth mentioning here.
Dealing with insurance companies is something that you cannot be prepared for at any academic institution – maybe unless you major in Insurance. Any experienced Pharmacy Tech can tell you that there are 1001 details you have to know, and those details are different for every insurance company. Whoever designed the Pharmacy Tech curriculum was smart enough to know that only the basics of drug insurance coverage can be taught in the classroom. Beyond that, all the learning is a result of on the job experience.
This should tell you that completing the Pharmacy Technician program of training and education is only the beginning of your career. The amount of learning that is necessary at your position will depend a lot on where you decided to work (hospital, mail order pharmacy, retail pharmacy). You may decide to charge the type of work you do after spending a few months at your first Pharm Tech position.
Now we come to the point where we need to talk about the bottom line of all the preparation, education, and certification: the money. The research shows that it is best to discuss the issue of salary based on where you are working and what your specific qualifications are. We hope you will do your own online research before deciding to make a final decision about becoming a Pharmacy Technician, so with that in mind consider the following section.
Most online reviews of jobs and salaries tend to be negative because most people tend to want to make their grievances public. That is fair, but when it comes to the field of a Pharmacy Technician you already know that the qualifications vary from one state to another. You also know that not all Pharmacy Techs are educated equally. The best way to get a real world perspective of any review regarding a Pharm Tech’s salary is to know as much as you can about the person and their perspective on salary.
Here is a sample of critical reviews of a Pharmacy Technician’s salary on the well-known job website, Indeed. First, you have to be careful to check when the comment was posted. In the case of “brown_dude34 in Roslindale, Massachusetts” it was 121 months or more than 10 years ago. Not very useful in applying the information to 2019.
However, if you got to the most recent postings you will find a much different, and brighter, view of the field. Syringe in Tualatin, Oregon (interesting choice of name) has a much different background in the field and has worked at it for 4 decades with very positive results. CeylonBlue in Cincinnati, Ohio says they have, “navigated to a successful career with no debt, a good salary, and plenty of opportunity to move up.”
Several things are worth noting here that apply to every reviews, positive or negative.
- Salary and opportunities are dependent on what state you live in.
- The specific state requirements will directly affect your salary.
- Job satisfaction varies from person to person.
- Continuing education is usually key to the poster’s view.
Again, the more specific information you have about the person and the state, the more you will be able to objectively determine the value of the story based on your specific situation.
Pharmacy Technician Salary
A sample of websites on the subject of annual salary puts the number at about $30,000 a year. Some use an hourly salary, which is about $15 - $17 to start. Using 2080 total working hours in a year (52 x 40) that number is between $31,000 and $35,000 a year. The annual averages and hourly rates are reasonably close, so you have a good idea what to expect as a general rule. But we said we were going to break the numbers down by where you work, so for that breakdown we will use the numbers found at Best Colleges. Their list of average salaries has an interesting breakdown by industry, which includes:
- Hospitals - state, local, and private
- General merchandise stores
- Food and beverage stores
- Pharmacies and drug stores
In the General Merchandise category are stores like Walmart, Target, and Walgreens. Examples of Food and Beverage stores are Kroger and Food Lion. The reported salaries for each of the industries are:
- Hospitals - state, local, and private $36,710
- General merchandise stores $31,320
- Food and beverage stores $29,860
- Pharmacies and drug stores $29,500
One interesting note here is that you are likely to get a few thousand dollars more by working at a Target or Walmart than an actual pharmacy. You may consider that starting your career at a local pharmacy is a sensible option because while the pay may not be the highest, you are only sacrificing a few thousand dollars at the beginning to gain experience and knowledge that will prepare you for the next step up the ladder. Plus, there may be more opportunities at a local pharmacy.
While it may sound overly repetitive, the importance of where you work can be crucial to getting the best understanding of your market value as a Pharmacy Technician. Consider this recent article about the state of Pharmacy Techs in Ohio.
There are three classes of Pharmacy Techs: Trainee, Registered, and Certified. Each of the classes has limitations on what tasks they are legally able to perform on the job. For example, unless you are a Certified Pharmacy Tech you cannot refill automated dispensing cabinets in a hospital or nursing home. That would seem to at least limit any possibility of a Trainee or Registered Tech from working at a hospital or nursing home in Ohio. This fact will limit the amount of income potential you have.
Another reason to peruse the article is because it shows that state requirements can change at any time. Keeping up with the knowledge base of a Pharmacy Tech is only part of the career. Knowing the potential changes to the industry in regards to local, state, and federal law is a part-time side job.
Obviously there is more homework you need to do before making a final decision, but as you can see there is a lot to know. Some people have successful and fulfilling careers as Pharmacy Technicians, and are happy with their salaries. Keeping up with changes in the industry in general and your job specifically will be an ongoing responsibility. The more you know about the state requirements in the state where you plan to work is essential.
But what if in the future you decide that a Pharmacy Tech is not a lifetime career? Taking the first step by getting an Associate’s Degree seems to be the best option if you want to objectively answer this question. First, you are likely to make a higher salary for the years you do spend as a Pharmacy Tech. Second, you will have two years of college credit that likely will be transferrable to a 4 year college. The projected increase in demand for Pharmacy Techs is about 10 percent over the next several years. But from a broader perspective, there is a higher demand for many healthcare professions such as Nursing. Your education and experience as a Pharm Tech can only help you if you transfer those skills to a healthcare related field.
If you decide to go for the 1 year certification option, you are likely to use your Pharm Tech knowledge and experience as a resume builder for a job in a different position – unless your goal is to become a Pharmacist. Getting a moderate salary and avoiding huge amounts of student loan debt are two excellent ways of being able to live on your own while preparing for your next job.
Remember that not everyone has the natural talent to take on Biology and Chemistry courses, or the innate ability to deal with people on a regular basis. The important thing is you take the time to think about whether this is something you want to do before investing any time or money into it.
Written by Bill Vix
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