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How jack-of-all-trades are replacing specialists

It's bitter medicine to swallow for those chasing after a coveted pharmaceutical career: the pharmaceutical industry's once healthy and desirable job market has been ailing since 2010, symptomatic of the world's weakened economy.  

Right now in BC, it's pretty tough with all the government's budget cuts, says Yi-Te, a third-year pharmaceutical science student at the University of British Columbia. What Yi-Te is referring to is Ontario and British Columbia's 2010 decision to slash the price of generic drugs. In December of 2011, Ontario won the appeal to reinstate the ban on private label generics and the multi-million dollar professional allowances they pay to pharmacies for stocking them on shelves. 

(Overall), the government is cutting back on healthcare, and we can feel the ripple effect, says Professor Pollen Yeung of Dalhousie University's College of Pharmacy in Halifax. The job opportunities in pharmaceutical companies are not as good as they were five or ten years ago.

In fact, foreign pharmaceutical giants from the U.S. and Europe have shed research laboratories worldwide in dramatic company restructurings designed to cut costs, while they suffer lost revenues from expiring drug patents. There are major plant closings in Canada. Merck & Co closed down [in Montreal], says Yeung. Last month, AstraZeneca also closed down its Quebec research and development plant. Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer are all facing the same patent expiration and company downsizing. 

But despite the doom and gloom reports, pharmaceutical jobs still exist, says Paule Letourneau, Vice-President of Human Resources at Pfizer Canada. But with downsizing, there is opportunity for those who have the ability and ambition to absorb more roles.

The environment is changing in the sense that in the past, you could do your whole career in one area if you were in sales or marketing, or science. You would gain credibility through your knowledge of that area, she says. Nowadays, because of the connecting, the links, the scope you have will make you a more attractive person in the organization.

For the incredible, shrinking pharmacy giants, surviving the downsizing will simply mean being able to do more with less, while meeting customer needs. To keep a job or get an entry-level job, the more skill sets you bring to the table, the better, which in the pharmaceutical industry means having a science degree and being business savvy. 

For the pharmaceutical sales representative, their role in Pfizer will change. Letourneau says that in the past, science and credentials were top priority for a salesperson candidate. Now, what Pfizer is looking for are connectors and key decision makers who are able to link in a complex healthcare environment.

We're not changing the titles of people. We're not saying we'll need totally new people in the market. ... Now, it's much more about connectors—people being able to manage a complex environment, and more of a business background, more of a business mindset, says Letourneau.

Clint Cora, who has 14 years of experience in pharmaceutical sales, including managing, agrees that a science degree, while extremely useful in this area of sales, does not guarantee a job. 

We have lots of people who do not have any business degrees who came from a lot of obscure backgrounds, but they showed the potential and they were hired, Cora says. He adds that it's about the aptitude for sales that matters more in the indirect selling of drugs to physicians. 

People who are in drug research, says Letourneau, are not in research purely. They need to have a business perspective behind the science, she says. Why? Cora explains that the pharmaceutical industry is competitive and doctors have an overwhelming number of choices for drugs to prescribe for one illness. The sales and marketing people behind these drugs need to know how they will compete, and sell their products against other brands. 

Meanwhile, the study of pharmacy leads to many possible avenues, so even if there's an oversaturation of community pharmacists out there, pharmacy graduates still have options. 

For third-year University of Alberta pharmacy student Darlene Korn, it's this flexibility that she savours in her chosen career path. You can help patients in a variety of settings, whether in hospital, in the community, or working behind the lines in the industry doing research and consultations. It's a very diverse profession.

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